An Experiment in Criticism (Canto)
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An Experiment in Criticism (Canto)

4.12 of 5 stars 4.12  ·  rating details  ·  908 ratings  ·  117 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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Samir Rawas Sarayji
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...more
Brenden Link
Feb 02, 2012 Brenden Link rated it 5 of 5 stars
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...more
Jesse
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
Jennifer
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...more
Bruce
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
Amy Edwards
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...more
Angela
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...more
Cheri
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...more
Brent Jones
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...more
John
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.
Carl
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.
Kevin
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...more
Readnponder
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...more
Danna
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...more
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...more
Tawny
Apr 03, 2008 Tawny rated it 3 of 5 stars
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
Chris
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
Homeschoolmama
I read this back in college days, I very much liked it then. I'd like to re-read this one.
Matthew
This book is most interesting. Here Lewis takes literary criticism and turns it on its head by defining types of reading (done by types of readers) and then suggesting that the book (or any art really) can then be judged by the response or the type of reading it encourages. This admittedly opens up a wide range of subjectivity in criticism but that doesn't seem to bother Lewis.

Much of the book is a defining (or encouraging?) of literary reading. This he says is to "receive" from the author and...more
Chris Krycho
Lewis has a number of rather helpful insights here—but this isn't exactly popular writing. While his normal skill with words is definitely on display, the questions he asks and the answers he offers are not going to be particularly interesting to most readers. That said, for the devotee of Lewis or the scholar of literature in general, this book is well worth the short time it takes to read.
Perelandra
In answer to the question: Why do we read literature and how do we judge it? If you want to read Lewis writing about reading, this is the book to get. Great fun to read, especially if you happen to be wearing a grey sweater and reading glasses, and have a cup of tea at hand.
Caleb
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.
Kiri
Interesting book (more like an extended essay) on the subject of (literary) criticism. Lewis suggests that instead of classifying books as good or bad, we should classify the way they are read as good or bad. After all, the same book can be read in many ways.

What is bad reading? Careless, shallow, reading for consumption or titillation or to fill idle hours.

What is good reading? Immersive, passionate, committed reading, with a mind open to the world the author aims to share.

I enjoyed the first c...more
Andrea Lundgren
I think everyone who considers themselves as readers should read this book. It is a great analysis on why we read and how we read. He is a bit disparaging of some genres, like science fiction, but he also notes that, so long as one literary reader considers a book as being good, we must remain uncertain of its being otherwise.

I greatly enjoyed his exploration of concepts like realism and fantasy, and his own thoughts on the good of reading. While the book is ostensibly about literary criticism a...more
Lora
Lewis discusses literature, perception, reality, and our relationships to each. Great quotes inside, a building of reasoning rather than fictional world building.
Brook Finlayson
Most practical treatise I've read on what defines good literature. Also exposes the wrong reasons for reading "great literature."
Kristen
Lewis certainly has some compelling arguments for how literature should be read and how this method of criticism would be much more stable then the one currently in use. Overall I felt that the book had some important implications for teaching adolescents.

Lewis makes the fascinating point that in today’s educational system we are teaching students to read so critically, that many approach every work with a distrust and suspicion, immediately looking out for ways that the author might deceive th...more
Charlie
Just fantastic.

The takeaways?

Lay aside your presuppositions, to the very best of your abilities, before you approach any work of literature.

Don't be so anxious to "use" so much as to "receive" whatever the work has to offer.

Don't be a snob.

Quoth Mr. Lewis:

"An amazing knowledge of Chaucerian or Shakesperian criticism sometimes co-exists with a very inadequate knowledge of Chaucer or Shakespeare."

"The real way of mending a man's taste is not to denigrate his present favourites but to teach hi...more
Jacob Aitken
Lewis submits the basic idea that a good book demands good reading. In a round-about way he shows how different books and genres reflect this criticism. He warns us of the "reading of the unliterary" (think of the average American). This chap will avoid non-narrative material, ignore the style and rhythm, and generally prefer fast-paced novels. Lewis gives us other examples of "misreading." There is a failure between "realism of presentation" and "realism of content" (80).

The above example is w...more
Trelesa
An expounding of Lewis' thoughts on good vs bad books, good vs bad readers and theories on how to determine which is which. As one of my favorite authors, it hurts me to say at times his position had an arrogant feel. But as always, thought-provoking and sincere.

I especially appreciated his ideas that we are failing to teach children how to enjoy books by making them dissect them for the author's supposed intent, meaning, feeling, message, ad nauseam... Teaching them to be critics rather than t...more
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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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The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe (Chronicles of Narnia, #1) The Chronicles of Narnia (Chronicles of Narnia, #1-7) The Voyage of the Dawn Treader (Chronicles of Narnia, #3) The Magician's Nephew (Chronicles of Narnia, #6) Prince Caspian (Chronicles of Narnia, #2)

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“The true reader reads every work seriously in the sense that he reads it whole-heartedly, makes himself as receptive as he can. But for that very reason he cannot possibly read every work solemly or gravely. For he will read 'in the same spirit that the author writ.'... He will never commit the error of trying to munch whipped cream as if it were venison.” 31 likes
“In reading great literature I become a thousand men and yet remain myself...I see with a myriad of eyes,but it is still I who see.” 30 likes
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