Brenton's Reviews > C.S. Lewis: A Biography

C.S. Lewis by A.N. Wilson
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it was ok

If this were a drinking party instead of a book, A.N. Wilson's C.S. Lewis: A Biography would be a five-star book. Humorous, light in tone, deftly written, the life of C.S. Lewis told here is engaging, moving, and poignant. Unfortunately, this was not a night around the dinner table, picking and eating and drinking and talking about this Oxford don our new friend Wilson had met one time. It is a book that purports to be a biography but has the unfortunate condition of not being terribly accurate.
You can see a list of errata by Kathryn Lindskoog here: http://cslewis.drzeus.net/papers/wils.... The list is as telling about C.S. Lewis studies as it is about Wilson's work. Many Lewis fans will have rejected the book because it has damning or lurid things in it, and because it drifts toward the Freudian, psychoanalytic view of history. I don't reject it out of hand for these reasons provided there can be sufficient evidence that the author can bring us truthfully into the history of the moment.
Wilson's smoking jacket old boys club approach to biographical approach to storytelling, though, left me with no confidence whatsoever that I could either trust his account where biographers differ, or that I could test his hypothesis. The errata is part of it. Even when you take out the protectionistic and interpretive bits, there are just dozens of errors. As Arend Smilde coyly noted in his much more complete review of the book, "Wilson might have been practising a kind of biography which is legitimate in its own way but which I have not yet learnt to appreciate." http://www.lewisiana.nl/definitivebio.... Perhaps, but then Smilde goes on to list pages of errors that we can divide into the rough categories of: 1) error of fact due to sloppiness; 2) error of interpretation due to uncareful weighing of evidence; 3) concerns or errors due to the fact that Wilson's evidence is based on hearsay, gossip, or private conversations; and 4) places where Wilson just simply seems bent against a sensible or evidence-based interpretation.
These categories are a bit puzzling to me as I have read Wilson's biographies on St. Paul and Tolstoy. I enjoyed Tolstoy, though I know almost nothing about the figure. I have done a masters degree on Paul, however, and that book made me angry at times. As scholars we make biographical and historical choices based on the best of our reading, and hopefully keep checking our biases. Wilson's bio of Paul simply slalomed through, grabbing the best interpretation from scholars to suit his purposes. It was a frustrating read, but what makes his bio of Lewis so different is that the Paul bio was pretty well researched. This Lewis biography was not well researched, leaving out the most important biography of the generation: Jack: A Life of C.S. Lewis by George Sayer, Lewis' student and friend. This makes me wonder if Wilson's Lewis book is a bit of a gap in his must stronger (though still controversial) work.
I won't repeat the errors--not simply because others have done that with startling accuracy, but also because I just really enjoyed reading this book. To be fair, this was my "jammed between the seats of the car to read while I'm waiting for things book" book. It is a special category of book, made up of a soft-cover text that can hold a pencil, about 300-350 pages so it sits nicely between the seats, one that I can both hold the story together in my head and one I don't mind taking 2 or 3 years to read. Because I read it in such small segments, and because my expectations were low, I never got really angry at any one point. It was an entertaining read that filled time in the dentist's office or the garage or while waiting for the traffic behind the water main break to flow again.
It is not, however, the first or last biography of C.S. Lewis anyone should read. That is, of course, if you are thinking of history.
To honour the late-night story feeling of the book, I will put a few quotes that I enjoyed on my review at A Pilgrim in Narnia. Here is the link to the extended review: https://apilgriminnarnia.com/2019/02/....
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Reading Progress

December 18, 2015 – Started Reading
December 18, 2015 – Shelved
February 11, 2019 – Finished Reading

Comments Showing 1-11 of 11 (11 new)

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message 1: by John (new)

John Stanifer I guess being jammed between seats in the car puts it a notch above a book you only read in the bathroom . . .


Brenton John wrote: "I guess being jammed between seats in the car puts it a notch above a book you only read in the bathroom . . ."

Well, I hadn't thought of hierarchy! Bathroom books for me are either: 1) letters, 2) poetry, or 3) cute/funny things. A similar category, though!


message 3: by John (new)

John Stanifer Makes sense! Anything that's short and (presumably) entertaining.


Katherine Sas I took a CS Lewis class while abroad in college that bizarrely assigned this as the required biography. It was otherwise a very good class, but I suspect it was chosen for the mere fact of being outwardly critical of CSL as a person (and therefore less rose-tinted). Or something.


Brenton Katherine wrote: "I took a CS Lewis class while abroad in college that bizarrely assigned this as the required biography. It was otherwise a very good class, but I suspect it was chosen for the mere fact of being ou..."
Or something! It was also very popular, so there is that.


message 6: by David (new)

David Sounds like an awful book. To purport to be a factual account but to wantonly make things up instead is a fraudulent act! Sounds like Wilson should have stuck to out-and-out fiction.


Brenton David wrote: "Sounds like an awful book. To purport to be a factual account but to wantonly make things up instead is a fraudulent act! Sounds like Wilson should have stuck to out-and-out fiction."
Well, if you get to pg. 306, you realize it is mythology! I have heard he had to do the book in a hurry, which I believe.


message 8: by Cleo (new)

Cleo Awesome review, Brenton! I read some parts of this biography and scanned others and quickly saw the enormous amount of speculation contained within. One would think an author would value their reputation enough AND respect the person they're writing about enough not to participate in gossip, conjecture, and bad research. I lost all respect for this author after "reading" this book. I'm glad you could find some positive moments in it but not having read a Lewis biography, I certainly wasn't going to start with this one. Disappointing ....


Brenton Cleo wrote: "Awesome review, Brenton! I read some parts of this biography and scanned others and quickly saw the enormous amount of speculation contained within. One would think an author would value their repu..."

Thanks for the note! I have actually expanded the review over at my blog: https://apilgriminnarnia.com/2019/02/...
Worth reading? Probably, but there is lot to do before then.


message 10: by Stephen (new)

Stephen Hayes Just took it off my "Want to read" list.


Brenton Stephen wrote: "Just took it off my "Want to read" list."

Man, you read everything! Yes, put this on your "after I've read everything, and I have a sunny afternoon at the beach read."


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