I realized a few weeks ago that I have at least five, and edging closer to ten, C.S. Lewis books on my Kindle. I also have one paperback C.S. Lewis book unread, so I decided that I should make C.S. Lewis one of the authors I read this month.
It helped that the Reading Challenge group I belong to, as one of the December challenges had a prompt to read a book with either “present” or “gift” in the title. That became the reason why I picked the title Present Concerns off my Kindle shelf.
Present Concerns is different from most of C.S. Lewis’ work that I have come in contact with. Instead of being fantasy/sci-fi fiction, religious rumination, or literary criticism, this book is a collection of essays that were written for a variety of newspapers and magazines. There are nineteen essays, usually written on contemporary topics.
Most of these essays date from the years around World War II, and this can be seen by the concerns that Lewis writes about. He writes about the dangers of the atomic age, about impressment into the military, about lowering standards of education, about the ideas of equality and democracy, among other topics. His tone is often cynical and he has a dry sarcastic wit the rings through to modern readers.
This is not his best collection. There are thoughts that he has written about in greater depth in other places. There are thoughts that really only pertain to the time that they were written in. There are other thoughts that ring true to the modern reader, and I confess to taking down many notes and jotting several quotes into my journal.
I noticed . . .
The C.S. Lewis of these essays would be considered a conservative in many ways. I found writing by Lewis that made me uncomfortable. He railed against the idea of encouraging each person to believe that their talents made them uniquely excellent. He railed against allowing those who are searching for equality to have it on the grounds that those who demand will never be sated. He seemed for the social order as it has always existed in a way that made me feel completely uncomfortable. Ultimately, he ponders whether or not democracy and equality is inherently good, and his conclusion is that they aren’t. I experienced dissonance because I realized that this was one more example of me being to entrenched in my cultural mores that I was completely repelled by someone with different mores.
I also noticed that there were things I could not relate to in this collection because I didn’t have the historical reference for them. For example, there’s one general he references over and over again in one of the essays, and each time it just sailed over my head. When you’re writing on current events, sometimes the writing is dated.
I wondered . . .
I wondered, for the first time, what Lewis would say to our culture. There were times in these essays that he came off as very conservative and felt Republican. It made me like him a little less (but I guess I know where my prejudices are).
I also wondered why I had never read “On Living in an Atomic Age” before. It was the perfect thing to read in a pandemic, and it was calming, reminding me that things of greater danger than Coronavirus have come and greater dangers than that will come.
It reminded me of . . .
Lewis’ thoughts about education and about chivalry here could not help but remind me of The Abolition of Man. His ideas assured me that I was not reading The Abolition of Man wrong and helped fill in some of my thoughts about it.
I also could not help but be reminded of some of the criticism surrounding Critical Theory in the present day because I wondered what a Lewis response would look like.
On a fiction note, Dear Mrs. Bird popped into my head once or twice. Lewis is writing for newspapers and magazines during World War II while serving in the Home Guard in Oxford. (He also took in children who were being evacuated from London, but that is more closely tied to another Lewis story.) The protagonist in Dear Mrs. Bird is writing for a London newspaper and volunteering to serve her country as a telephone operator. That combination of writing and serving was something that made me feel like some of the essays in Journalistic Concerns really would help capture some of the reality of Dear Mrs. Bird.
One excellent quote . . .
There are many excellent quotes in this book, and I wrote a lot in my journal as I read this. In fact, at some point in the future, I plan to write some more in response to specific essays. However, one quote about democracy might help to give a flavor of Lewis’ writing in these essays, and it might be completely timeless. Lewis says,
Democracy demands that little men should not take big ones too seriously; it dies when it is full of little men who think they are big themselves.
Lately, it seems like every time I turn on the news or get on Twitter, this quote comes into my head. I fear our world is full of little men who think they are big.