This blog is basically about how good books are nice and bad books are the pits. And then I get grumpy.

Sunday, December 21, 2008

I wonder as I wander or, I'm pensive as I peruse

The Magician's Book, A Skeptic's Adventures in Narnia by Laura Miller is a weighty piece of literary criticism, not in the sense of being so scholarly that a casual reader wouldn't want to approach it, but rather because it calls into question a figure from children's literature who is very dear to many. This is, of course, the author of the Narnia books, C.S. Lewis.

To a lot of people, Lewis seems to be a curmudgeonly figure from history, a kindly and nearly lifelong bachelor who wrote stories for children and responded when his young fans penned letters to him, a man who literally wrote the book on Christianity (or at least a really famous one) with his Mere Christianity, a sort of meditation on and explanation of his faith.

Certainly, this image is preferable to the flawed individual who emerges from the pages of the first half of The Magician's Book. There's nothing new in being imperfect. Most of us know we all belong to that club. But a benign and almost purified light is so often thrown on Lewis. The tales of Narnia are moving and lovable and crystallize so much of what we imagine Lewis to have been; it is, therefore, difficult to stomach an ambivalent take on the spinner of these tales.

As a lover of Narnia I think I am not alone in wishing that Miller's book could be a happier criticism of the series. Not being a Lewis scholar I am not qualified to say which view of Clive Staples is the more accurate one. I can only express the heaviness that is causing me to put aside this book for a time while I recoup my fortitude for the rest of it. A fun romp through a reader's imagination would have been more fun.

But it wouldn't necessarily have been more thought-provoking. So I must acknowledge that the issues brought up thus far in my reading of this book (like prejudice, misogyny, crafting a story that spreads religious doctrine) are important to discuss. And they are discussed well; that is, they are thoughtfully represented, appear professionally researched and spiced up with references to works of literature and talks with readers and writers. In addition, the author delivers what she promises in the subtitle; she tells us of her relationship with the Narnia books - her Narnia adventures - as she gives us a memoir of this significant portion of her reading life. Readers like to read about readers, so this is most welcome.

The title of Miller's book does identify her as a skeptic, so it should come as little surprise to anyone that there is criticism here. And this, I have found in scanning reviews from other sites and blogs, has prompted bloggers to caution Narnia lovers that they may not want to read The Magician's Book lest it affect their own further experiences of the Chronicles.

How can anyone dare to say that any particular book is one not to be read or, conversely, must be read? We can just guide a little, give some suggestions. And keep in mind any suggestions I give are based on my thoughts at the midpoint of Miller's book. So let me tell you this way, if I were talking about pastry I'd say don't expect meringue; realize that it's more like fruit cake. Be prepared to eat, taste and digest. And then do it again.

And when I do it again, I'll be back with my final thoughts on The Magician's Book.

Thanks to Hachette for this complimentary review copy.

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