This is not the most profound or polished book of all time, but I very much enjoyed it. The book is essentially a series of reminisces by a variety of people about their personal encounters with C.S. Lewis. As you’d expect, the recollections are nearly all positive (the editor’s only negative page is 131). There are some old photos, including of letters typed and handwritten by Lewis (and his brother). The first two people thanked in the acknowledgments are Owen Barfield and James Como; that’s just a matter of alphabetical order, but it’s fitting, too, since the former was ones of Lewis’s closest friends and Como is himself quite an expert on Lewis.
One reader writes sarcastically (166) that such reminisces “provide the answers to some burning questions. I was deeply moved by the news that Lewis used a shaving stick called Erasmic. The fact that he wore Aertex cotton underwear fills me with awe. And the revelation that he sued a chamber pot during the night will be extremely valuable for my spiritual life.”
In response, the editor quotes (166-67, more than once I think) this: “It is a peculiar trait in us all that makes us want to know everything about a great man. If we can find out how Johnson wanted his eggs, or whether Bismark wanted his windows open or closed, we will. Data like this may or may not throw light on the man’s contribution to the race — literature, politics, science, etc. — but it often seems to.”
I would note in this regard that Lewis presents a special case. Knowing how he lived and treated others is more relevant than how Bismark did so, since part of being a Christian is not only what we say but what we do, and not only what we do publicly but what we do privately.
The first part of the book is mostly interviews with, or written accounts by, many former students and two women who, as girls, had stayed at Lewis’s home during World War II. Most of those reminiscing throughout the book were not known to me, but there were some distinguished people among them: Malcolm Muggeridge was the biggest name, and there are contributions as well from Kenneth Tynan, historian A.J.P. Taylor, professors W.R. Fryer, E.L. Edmonds, Erik Routley, H.C. Chang, and Naoyuki Yagyu, poets Alan Rook and Ruth Pitter, Lewis biographer George Sayer and Lewis scholar Kathryn Lindskoog, and Sir David Hunt. From page 132 on, it’s all editor Schofield’s thoughts on a number of Lewis’s facets.
Malcolm Muggeridge’s speculations about Lewis and sex are unilluminating, but the second half of his contribution more than makes up for that. The editor sets the stage this way (129, footnote with publication information on Mere Christianity omitted): “Now please say something about [Lewis’s] work, Mr. Muggeridge. What do you think of it? What do you think is the best of Mere Christianity? Personally I prefer those few pages on pride.” And here is Muggeridge’s response (129-30, again omitting footnotes with publication information about books cited):
Yes. A fine chapter, that. Very fine on pride, I quite agree. But the whole book is a brilliant piece of exposition. I like The Problem of Pain too. But I’d say the one that caught my interest most is The Screwtape Letters. I think he has got a very profound point that the devil has a much better opportunity with sentimental good people than with vicious people. He has a much better opening. He gets someone like Mrs. Roosevelt. And he can really make hay with that. Lewis saw this. A lot of people don’t.
Yes, for me Lewis was a fortunate encounter because he had this very clear mind. And remember that I don’t like universities or dons. I mean temperamentally I don’t like them. The fact that Lewis was so completely a don that his approach to the thing was the approach of a don; and his joking, his facetiousness, is a don’s facetiousness. You see what I mean. And there is a lack of sympathy there. But as I read him I am overwhelmed by the clarity of his mind, and his sincerity, the total sincerity and honesty of his thoughts and beliefs. That’s the point. But as a don, as a man who has lived all his life in this University — well, I was at Cambridge. I very much disliked it as a place. I couldn’t stand these dons. I hated Cambridge.
Yes, I hated it. I don’t like universities at all. So my admiration for Lewis is, in a sense, won from me reluctantly. It is a measure of how good he is that he gets that. Because he loved Oxford and he was a don of dons, wasn’t he? And, you know, they irritate me. And scholarship I haven’t much opinion of, either. I think it is a kind of second-rate activity. But still he wins me in spite of all that, because of the wonderful clarity and the genuineness and true humility he achieved. I think no one has presented the Christian faith to the twentieth century mind as clearly as he has.
There’s no index in the book, and there’s some duplication. The latter is not necessarily bad, and I especially liked reading this quote from Lewis more than once (110, emphasis in original):
There comes a moment when the children who have been playing at burglars hush suddenly: was that a real footstep in the hall? There comes a moment when people who have been dabbling in religion (“Man’s search for God”!) suddenly draw back. Supposing we really found Him? We never meant it to come to that! Worse still, supposing He had found us?
The book was published in 1983, which is sort of an interesting point in time. Lewis had died only twenty years earlier, in 1963, so the recollections were still relatively fresh, and I found the reference to Charles Colson — saved after reading Mere Christianity — serving as a bridge of sorts: I was only eight when Lewis died, but I certainly remember Watergate. It’s somehow reassuring to be reminded that Lewis lived not so long ago.