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An Experiment in Criticism (Canto)

4.17  ·  Rating Details ·  1,303 Ratings  ·  178 Reviews
Why do we read literature and how do we judge it? C.S. Lewis's classic analysis springs from the conviction that literature exists for the joy of the reader and that books should be judged by the kind of reading they invite. Crucial to his notion of judging literature is a commitment to laying aside expectations and values extraneous to the work, in order to approach it wi ...more
Paperback, 152 pages
Published January 31st 1992 by Cambridge University Press (first published 1961)
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"Lewis's proposal is that we judge books by the way people read them. Focus on what constitutes good reading,…more
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"Lewis's proposal is that we judge books by the way people read them. Focus on what constitutes good reading, rather than the elements of a good book". (less)
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Samir Rawas Sarayji
Sep 19, 2013 Samir Rawas Sarayji rated it really liked it
This is partially a review and partially a reflection. I expect on my second reading to expand on the review part of it, but for now, it has inspired me to put some personal thoughts together regarding how I read.

In C.S. Lewis’ book An Experiment in Criticism, I found a thread of thought that was both engaging and insightful where he proposed a thought experiment involving literary criticism.

Lewis suggests that books should be judged by how they are read rather than how they are written, and tha
Brenden Link
Feb 02, 2012 Brenden Link rated it it was amazing
Recommends it for: Donna Link
Recommended to Brenden by: T. David Gordon
If you haven't read anything on literary criticism, this little book by C.S. Lewis will open your mind to a whole new world -- the world of the text, and it well-read.

Lewis suggests that rather than judging the quality of books by their mere nature and/or content, one should judge them by the nature in which they are read. For example, some people read books only once to gratify some curiosity or lust, only to abandon the books forever afterwards. Contrarily, those who truly love their books wi
Apr 21, 2009 Jesse rated it liked it
Another good example as to why it's a shame C.S. Lewis has been largely abandoned to the realm of religious studies--I can't imagine many non-religious literary critics would bother touching this now. In a lot of ways this is a proto-text for Reader Response theory, with Lewis exploring why making a distinction between what is "good" literature and what is "bad" literature is less important than analyzing the person reading it (which he breaks into the "literary" and "unliterary"). Of course the ...more
"But in reading great literature I become a thousand men and yet remain myself"
C.S. Lewis, 'An Experiment in Criticism', (p.141)

"Those of us who have been true readers all our life seldom fully realise the enormous extension of our being which we owe to authors. We realise it best when we talk with an unliterary friend. He may be full of goodness and good sense but he inhabits a tiny world. In it, we should be suffocated. The man who is contented to be only himself, and therefore less a self, i
Susan Budd
Oct 25, 2015 Susan Budd rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
I could listen to Professor Lewis talk about books for hours.
Oct 09, 2011 John rated it really liked it
Yup. I liked it. Like most of Lewis' books, he says more in 140 pages than most do in 300. But I suppose he also looks deeply into little to produce much. When most are raking leaves and combing grass, Lewis is 20 feet deep and analyzing roots.
Amy Edwards
Feb 10, 2015 Amy Edwards rated it really liked it
I thoroughly enjoyed reading this book, even though I realize that I probably don't have the categories in my mind (yet) to fully understand Lewis here. This is not exactly a book review, but a book reaction.

Am I a literary reader? I hope so, but I probably have a long way to go. Lewis says, "We love to hear exactly how others enjoy what we enjoy ourselves." This explains why it is so much fun to read what critics or bloggers or other Goodreads reviewers have to say about books. And even though
Aug 14, 2009 Bruce rated it really liked it
In this book Lewis proposes to critique readers and types of reading, leaving the distinction between books themselves as a corollary to the primary experiment. Here are a couple of quotations that struck me: “The first demand any work of any art makes upon us is surrender. Look. Listen. Receive. Get yourself out of the way….The distinction can hardly be better expressed than by saying that the many use art and the few receive it.” After describing the reading habits of the “unliterary” (primari ...more
Apr 20, 2013 Jennifer rated it it was amazing
Shelves: 2013-reads
It is a true pity that George Orwell and C.S. Lewis never happened to get drunk at the same bar and enter into a violent, gin-fueled debate over literary criticism, because that might have changed the course of the development of literature in the 20th century. Or perhaps it would only have made the bartender rich selling tickets to the show. Sadly, we'll never know.

Lewis' radical proposition here is that it is as much the reader as the text which determines whether a book is "good" or "bad" lit
Feb 15, 2016 Nick rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: kindle
There are elements of this book that I really enjoyed, but there were also a great many parts in which I felt like a freshman in a doctoral level class.

I can't say that I fully grasp all aspects of his argument. The parts that I did understand, however, where interesting. I definitely need to revisit this.
Nov 22, 2009 Cheri rated it did not like it
I realize this book was written 50 years ago, but I still find passages like these simply unforgivable:

"We have all known women who remembered a novel so dimly that they had to stand for half an hour in the library skimming through it before they were certain they had once read it. But the moment they became certain, they rejected it immediately. . . . Those who read great works, on the other hand, will read the same work ten, twenty or thirty times during the course o their life."

"And unhappily
May 07, 2013 Angela rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
C. S. Lewis and E. B. White remind me of each other, and not just because they both go by their initials and wrote for children. Lewis exemplifies "omit needless words," and the succinctness and clarity of his prose embody the logic and clarity of his thought. Reading him is a series of both "of course!" and "aha!" moments: he makes so much intelligent sense, but you feel you needed him to draw out his conclusions in order for you to see them - yet you don't feel pandered to at all.

Literary theo
Brent Jones
Mar 01, 2009 Brent Jones rated it really liked it
Why read? C.S. Lewis says because it is a hedonistic pleasure and it is "good". "Good" for Lewis does not mean the subject matter is true or even logical but dependent on individual need.

In the first chapter he compares buying a book to someone who buys a picture. The need can be very different from one person to the next. One might buy the picture to cover a bare spot on the wall and then after a week or two the pictures become mostly invisible to them. The good news is that the bare spot is n
Sep 22, 2009 Carl rated it it was amazing
Shelves: favorites
Expressing his distaste for much of contemporary Literary Criticim, Lewis attempts an exploration of what reading is, what it does, and why literature should be given back to the readers.
Courtney Johnston
I think this may be the first book of literary criticism I've read, and I only picked it up because I'm at the beginning of what feels like a bit of a C.S. Lewis binge (his biography 'Surprised by Joy' is by my elbow as I write this).

'An Experiment in Criticism' is just that - a lengthy essay in which Lewis tests out a different way of writing about books, and in particular, distinguishing good books from bad. It opens:

"In this essay. I propose to try an experiment. Literary criticism is traditi
Apr 03, 2008 Tawny rated it liked it
Recommended to Tawny by: Professor Elizabeth Wahlquist
Shelves: literacy
Much to my surprise, I enjoyed reading An Experiment in Criticism. Then again, I am a humanities minor, so anything dealing with art in general is of interest to me. I really appreciated how C.S. Lewis wrote about reading, music, myths, poetry, and paintings. I think he covered his bases well and did not favor any art form. Unlike many other literary critics, Lewis made his points logical and easy to understand. The terminology he used to argue his position was also decipherable. It was a great ...more
Tori Samar
This definitely just became one of my favorite books about reading books. Lewis's descriptions of the reading "majority" and the reading "few" are excellent; he has put into words what I personally have experienced as a reader and also observed in others. Although I can't yet say that I've learned to read all books as the "few" do, I have done it with some and am now more determined than ever to become a truly good reader. Thanks to Lewis, I now have another compelling paradigm with which to inf ...more
Sep 17, 2016 Danae rated it really liked it
It's a book about books. Book-ception. Boom.

I loved it. I'd rank it with Mere Christianity. I love how C. S. Lewis analyzes things. I couldn't help but think that if he were writing this now, we'd be reading it on a blog. Ha. Then again, C. S. Lewis never even progressed to the typewriter, but that's beside the point. It's that style.

*sigh* I love C. S. Lewis.
Mar 30, 2014 Kevin rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
As a reader, I found this book refreshing and thought provoking! It presented a new (to me) view of how to read, of how to receive literature. I am looking forward to re-reading this book as part of my CS Lewis book club this semester. Below are a few excepts from the Epilogue:

"Good reading, therefore, though it is not essentially an affectional or moral or intellectual activity, has something in common with all three. In love we escape from our self into one other. In the moral sphere, every ac
Jeff Short
Mar 18, 2015 Jeff Short rated it really liked it
Shelves: self-improvement
This is a very interesting read. What is a good book? Why should we read it? How should we read it? Lewis gives some good answers. He stated his aim: "If all went ideally well we should end by defining good literature as that which permits, invites, or even compels good reading; and bad, as that which does the same for bad reading." He asserts a good book is art, to be received and there is greater benefit than the experience or the event.

He wrote, "This, so far as I can see, is the specific val
One of the best books on literature, and on art in general, I've ever read. Lewis' first rule in his approach to criticism is that we “surrender. Look. Listen. Receive. Get yourself out of the way. (There is no good asking first whether the work before you deserves such a surrender, for until you have surrendered you cannot possibly find out.)” His basic approach to literary criticism is a reversal of that which is normal: instead of judging books as "good" or "bad", and making assumptions about ...more
Jul 25, 2016 Readnponder rated it really liked it
Many of us think of C. S. Lewis as a Christian apologist or as creator of Narnia. But he had a "day job" that occupied much of his time -- teaching English at Oxford and later at Cambridge. An Experiment in Criticism is the last of Lewis's academic works, published in 1961.

The "experiment" referenced in the title is Lewis's proposal that we judge books by the way people read them. Focus on what constitutes good reading, rather than the elements of a good book. Professor Bruce Edwards refers to
May 26, 2011 Danna rated it really liked it
At the outset, and at many points along the way, I was convinced that Lewis was simply on a rant against literary scholars and critics who dismissed his Narnia Tales as being only a fairy tale for children.
Ultimately I adapted to his style, arguments, and penchant for debating from all sides of an issue. One happy surprise was the two or three belly laughs I enjoyed, and the discovery of great soundbites, as well as a much-loved quote at the end:
"But in reading great literature I become a thousa
Beatriz Canas Mendes
Já me tinha colocado algumas questões acerca do que definirá boa e má literatura, bons e maus leitores. Ao ler este livro obtive algumas respostas a essas perguntas que tinha em mente e C. S. Lewis tornou-se quem mais me ajudou a arrumar as ideias. Não é que eu não tivesse já pensado nalgumas das definições e pensamentos que propõe acerca do assunto, mas clarificou-me e categorizou aquilo que me faltava categorizar, proporcionando-me uma experiência elucidativa como há algum tempo não tinha.
Apr 22, 2009 Chris rated it it was amazing
I have read this book annually since I first picked it up six years ago. This book is far more valuable than a mere manual on improving literary criticism. Lewis's beautifully written, contrarian, penetrating analysis of good reading is just as applicable to good living generally. As someone who has read nearly every one of Lewis's published works, this little book ranks as his best by far. If it influences you as much as it influenced me, you will become a much more enchanted, surrendered reade ...more
D.J. Edwardson
Aug 11, 2014 D.J. Edwardson rated it really liked it
This book is a fascinating look into what makes for good literature and how different people approach the reading of books. I feel I should re-read it before giving an extended review because there were several points I found myself disagreeing with and I should like to make sure I understand them properly before coming down too hard on them. Most of the book, however, is spot on and, in typical Lewis fashion, delivered with pith and unflappable common sense. If you are at all a lover of good bo ...more

I like the premise of this book. I like the idea that Lewis proposes here, that literature should not be measured by how it's written but how it's read. But I also thought his " experiment" idea could have been expressed more succinctly in an essay. Once again a lot of references Lewis uses went over my head. So unless you're very familiar w/British literature of the 1930's and before, most of the examples will be lost on you.

Just picked this one up again. I still have my tattered copy from coll
Gavin Breeden
Sep 22, 2014 Gavin Breeden rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: 2014-reads
"Works of art are meant to be received, not used" and many other wise sayings fill this book. I'd love to put a copy of this and Flannery O'Connor's "Mystery and Manners" in the hands of every Christian artist in the world.
Praise for the book. Here's a (long) list of all of the references to other works.
Jul 27, 2013 Caleb rated it it was amazing
Lewis brings his rare combination of intellect and humility to bear on literary criticism. His premise--that the literary should judge books based on the quality of reading they permit rather than doing things the other way round--was exactly what I needed to hear.
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CLIVE STAPLES LEWIS (1898–1963) was one of the intellectual giants of the twentieth century and arguably one of the most influential writers of his day. He was a Fellow and Tutor in English Literature at Oxford University until 1954. He was unanimously elected to the Chair of Medieval and Renaissance Literature at Cambridge University, a position he held until his retirement. He wrote more than th ...more
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“In great literature, I become a thousand different men but still remain myself.” 143 likes
“The man who is contented to be only himself, and therefore less a self, is in prison. My own eyes are not enough for me, I will see through those of others. Reality, even seen through the eyes of many, is not enough. I will see what others have invented. Even the eyes of all humanity are not enough. I regret that the brutes connot write books. Very gladly would I learn what face things present to a mouse or a bee; more gladly still would I perceive the olfactory world charged with all the information and emotion it carries for a dog. Literary experience heals the wound, without undermining the privilege, of individuality... in reading great literature I become a thousand men and yet remain myself. Like the night sky in the Greek poem, I see with a myriad of eyes, but it is still I who see. Here, as in worship, in love, in moral action, and in knowing, I transcend myself; and am never more myself than when I do.” 49 likes
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