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An Experiment in Criticism Paperback – Jan 31 1992

5.0 out of 5 stars 5 customer reviews

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Paperback, Jan 31 1992
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Harry Potter and the Cursed Child
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Product Details

  • Paperback: 152 pages
  • Publisher: Cambridge University Press; Reprint edition (Jan. 31 1992)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0521422817
  • ISBN-13: 978-0521422819
  • Product Dimensions: 13.8 x 1.2 x 21.6 cm
  • Shipping Weight: 249 g
  • Average Customer Review: 5.0 out of 5 stars 5 customer reviews
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: #710,225 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
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Product Description


'Lewis is at one and the same time provocative, tactful, biased, open-minded, old-fashioned, far-seeing, very annoying and very wise.' Church Times

'Genuinely provocative ... makes the best case against evaluative criticism that I have read.' David Daiches, New York Times Book Review

Book Description

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.

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By D Glover TOP 500 REVIEWER on Nov. 13 2009
Format: Paperback
It has been some years since I read this work so my review is based more on the lasting impression that this book left on me than on a fresh read with the argument clearly in my mind.

What I do remember is that in this provocative book, Lewis challenges readers to try a little experiment. He advocates judging a book not by evaluating its merits based on a set of criteria that some modernist professors in ivory tower English departments (or worse yet, psychology professors) have developed as a type of objective standard of worthiness (as most of us are taught even in grade school) or by some cultural trend that demands slavish obedience to its current fad (which we learn by osmosis through the media) but rather to look at the type of readers that enjoy a particular work and judge the work on the basis of who reads and enjoys it. Often, the criteria that are developed for literary criticism serve the purpose of setting the reader, or more truly the one who developed the criteria, over the work and thus the story is coloured by its perceived need to "measure up". Rather, Lewis calls readers to simply "receive" a story and let it carry the reader off in what ever direction the narrative tale and artistry of the language leads.

Lewis compares good literature to good art and great works of music and poor literature to mass produced kitsch (you know, the pictures in the furniture section of a department store, with the plastic faux gold frames) and elevator music. Good art is purchased and valued because of the emotional response it creates in the heart and mind of the beholder. This effect continues. Kitsch may sell in far greater numbers but it is `used' because of what it does for us. Kitsch matches the couch so we buy it and hang it on the wall; it is an accessory.
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Format: Paperback
As a person whose life is dedicated to art in all its various incarnations, this has proved the single most enlightening work I have ever had the pleasure of reading. While it itself is literary criticism and in one sense not literature but a study thereof, it's the most radical, revolutionary book I have read regarding art. Before I can continue, one point needs to be cleared first.
I'm a Christian, and I believe the single most important priority is to lead people to the knowledge and saving grace of the Lord Jesus Christ. You can do such through art. However, anything that Lewis wrote that lead someone to Jesus is, of course, more important than this book in that respect. Jesus comes first, art comes underneath that in priority, as do all things. That being said:

AN EXPERIMENT IN CRITICISM is the single most important work C. S. Lewis has produced when it comes to literature and the arts. THE CHRONICLES OF NARNIA, the SPACE TRILOGY, and TILL WE HAVE FACES are literature, but this overwhelms them all - not because of what it is (a universal principle that can be applied to art), but because of what it is not (a story or work of art that not everyone will have the same taste for). People may or may not like his fiction (although I find it rare to meet a person who doesn't like NARNIA) - but this book anyone can appreciate, especially those interested in literature in specific and art in general (for, although it concerns itself primarily with literature, this book also stands in defense of drama, music, painting, and the artistic endeavours of humankind in general). Because there are differing tastes in terms of fiction, people who will not read Lewis's own literature will (or should) read this.
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How do we assess literature? What makes books good? What makes them bad? Have we room for objectivity? An Experiment in Criticism was written to address these sorts of questions. Lewis suggests a contrast in readership rather than 'writership.' Literary readers 'receive' books and unliterary readers 'use' them. The same is true of musical and unmusical listeners and of artistic and inartistic viewers. What does it mean to 'receive'? It is a self-abnegation and self-transcendence. Lewis writes: 'The first demand any work of art makes upon us is surrender. Look. Listen . . . Get yourself out of the way . . . Wait. Attend. See what he is going to make of it' (pp. 19, 24). What does it mean to 'use'? Here the term is pejorative, connoting unreceptive exploitation and manipulation. So, art can be received or used. Reception adds to life; using does not. The receiver wants to rest in the work intrinsically; the user uses for extrinsic purposes.

Lewis concludes: books that permit - or, better still, encourage - good (that is, receptive) reading are good; books that do not are not. This critical reformulation 'focuses our attention on the act of reading' (p. 104). In other words, on what actualises the merely potential. It makes the job of the literary critic much harder. This is a welcome change, for literary criticism is now 'too easy' (p. 107). Moreover, 'the proposed system puts our feet on solid ground whereas the usual one puts them on a quicksand' (p. 105).

Now, this is just a clumsy bare-bones summary of Lewis' thesis. He covers much else besides - including, escapism and entertainment, literary realism, mythology, fantasy writing . . .
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