Reading through Lewis’s essays is always interesting, and the other day I came across one I love! It’s called ‘High and Low Brows’, and it explores the dichotomy between Good, Great, or Classical Books (type B in the essay, or highbrows) and Popular Books (type A, or lowbrows). His goal is to find out where, exactly, the line is and why it exists. He first makes clear that it’s not a distinction between well written and not well written and quotes a college head as describing reading a ‘good, bad book’. It was well-written, but definitely part of the lowbrow class. Then he explores things like themes and subject matter and writing style, and finds examples of similarities in each category. Then there’s the fact that Dickens and Moliere wrote best-sellers for a general audience in order to make money, so it isn’t really about whether an author was trying to write great literature, or just something that would sell, either. What makes these books move from one class to the other seems to have to do with time. And what time does to books is make them difficult. So Lewis finally comes to the conclusion that the dividing line is . . . difficulty. Yup. An easy book in the mid-19th century becomes a difficult book in the mid-20th and so moves from type A to type B. So, some books are on the highbrow side of things right off the bat (because they’re difficult to begin with), and others become that way with time, because they become more difficult as they become more dated. So Lewis basically cautions readers not to be quite so dismissive of popular literature, as it could well be the highbrow literature in a hundred years.
I’m assuming not many people saw . . . or agreed with . . . or maybe were willing to admit . . . his premise from this essay. But what is really interesting to me is that Lewis obviously appreciated both complicated, difficult literature (witness his love for Dante and Medieval and Renaissance literature in general – its complexity is much of the appeal) and more popular literature (witness his continual references to books like The Well at the World’s End). And he makes the point that slighting popular literature does no one any good – nor does applauding scholars for reading popular literature in their native language. Oh, how he would sorrow to see the kind of books kids are praised for reading these day! The twaddle my kid brings home from the library sometimes doesn’t even bother with proper grammar! But teaching people to be able to read more difficult literature at least gives them the advantage of broadening their horizons. I would say that it also has the advantage – which Lewis talks about elsewhere – of being able to appreciate and evaluate different viewpoints – both cultural and chronological. That’s one of the things I love about homeschooling. Our read-alouds right now are The Hobbit and a book of classical myths. Familiarity with the myths will make references in literature from the Odyssey to Shakespeare to the modern Arcadia (Iain Pears – amazing!) much easier to appreciate – it will make ‘difficult’ literature much more accessible for them.
Part of what I love about this article is that Lewis had already published Out of the Silent Planet. That was definitely classed as lowbrow literature! Lewis took a lot of flak over the next several years because he was an Oxford professor who kept publishing lowbrow books in addition to his scholarly work. But these popular works also have a deeper, more difficult level that we’re just now exploring . . . in journals . . . as if they belonged to type B, or ‘highbrow’ literature. So, as Lewis loved both kinds of literature, he wrote novels that in a sense belonged to both kinds of literature. Though, for some people, at least, that seventy years makes even the more obvious level on a difficulty par with type B!
Thinking about these ideas is encouraging me to think, once again, about books I love of both kinds. I share Lewis’s tendency to appreciate both kinds of literature, and to seek a balance between them in my reading. Even as a kid I was reading, by choice, chosen from the library shelves, the definitely type A Nancy Drew alongside biographies of Dolly Madison and Martha Washington – biographies written for an adult audience, which qualified as more difficult literature for 12-year-old me. Then it was Agatha Christie (A) and James Fenimore Cooper (B) by the time I was fifteen. In college I remember reading Jane Eyre and Shakespeare and performing The Tell-Tale Heart. It was SO MUCH fun walking around randomly reciting that killer of a first line – ‘In the consideration of the faculties and impulses, of the prima mobilia of the human soul, the phrenologists have failed to make room for a propensity, which, although obviously existing as a radical, primitive, irreducible impulse’ . . . and there my memory fails me. Anyway, now I’m reading Milton’s Paradise Lost and Lewis’s essays, listening to the Ransom trilogy, and reading an Agatha Christie. What I’ve tended to lately is reading Lewis and his influences and listening to easy literature – like steampunk (most recently Mortal Engines). Like Lewis, I tend to appreciate literature that is easy on the surface, but has some interesting insights or lessons or themes either on another level or buried in the conversations or stories.
I guess my point is that I, and I think many people, naturally choose a balance of literature between that which is difficult for them, and that which is easy. On a day when I’ve been running on autopilot, or been distracted by trying to do fifty things at once, I’ll look for something difficult to read, so I can focus. On a day when I’ve been overwhelmed with difficult decisions or emotional situations, I’m more likely to turn to something easy. I just think it’s incredibly sad that in our culture, most people, even those who enjoy Shakespeare, wouldn’t think to pick up and read Paradise Lost because they assume it’s too difficult.
So, pick up a difficult book and spend some time working through it! It’s fun! (Yes, I know I’m weird – but you may enjoy it more than you think!)
I named this part one because I have lots more to say about this idea and how it applies to various literature, including – you guessed it – Agatha Christie . . . and the Bible!
Next Post: High and Low Brows, Part 2
Previous Post: Lewis vs. Milton