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on December 9, 2015
Love C.S. Lewis. Hate this book. I have enjoyed many of his theological works and of course the Narnia series. This is an autobiography. I found it rather tedious reading initially and then grew increasingly disturbed by the content. The author had an unhappy and (in my view) highly disturbing childhood in boarding schools. I am certain the tale grows happier but I simply couldn't continue and put the book down one third to halfway through it.
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on August 26, 2013
If you wanna know the person, character and life behind the man C S Lewis, this is the book that will do the job. I was personally interested in his idea behind the title "Surprised by Joy". What did he mean by "Joy". After a great deal about his life in the book, he answers that question very clearly in the end, saving the book from it being simply about his life.

His road to Christ is explained through his life, taking root in his quest for the imaginary joy that he longed for. This book is highly recommended for it gives yet another compelling evidence for the kingdom of God. This "Joy" that we seek is only met in His Kingdom and there is reason for it.
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on July 2, 2015
I like C.S. Lewis but this autobiography is way too detailed in the first half of the book for my liking. I found myself speed reading through far too many pages.
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on September 12, 2003
This is C. S. Lewis's spiritual autobiography and it is a masterpiece. Lewis was raised in a somewhat nominal Christianity, which he threw off as a school-boy. But as Lewis says, "A young man who wishes to remain a sound Atheist cannot be too careful of his reading. There were traps everywhere - 'Bibles laid open, millions of surprises,' as Herbert says, 'fine nets and strategems.' God is, if I may say it, very unscrupulous." And this book is Lewis's chronicle of God's strategems and nets and the surprises which eventually converted Lewis back to Christianity. Central to this process was Lewis's experience of joy, which he defines as "an unsatisfied desire which is itself more desirable than any other satisfaction." As a boy and as a man, Lewis was stabbed by this desire, yet never able to satisfy it. By a process of elimination, he came to realize that (as he says in another book) "if I find in myself a desire which no experience in this world can satisfy, the most probable explanation is that I was made for another world." The desire led him to the Objective Other - the Absolute - Spirit. At first, Lewis viewed this Other as an impersonal and objective absolute. But, God strategically boxed him into a corner (Lewis uses the analogy of check-mate in a game of chess) where he was forced to acknowledge that this Other was God Himself, and beyond that, God enfleshed in Jesus Christ. Woven into the story are the events of Lewis's childhood, education, and intellectual development. Quite a lot of the discussion centers around his reading, from Beatrix Potter as a child, to Keats, Herbert, MacDonald, and Chesterton as a young adult. This is a fascinating book and one cannot quite hope to fully appreciate Lewis without reading it. I highly recommend it!
6 people found this helpful
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on August 12, 2001
This is the firsthand account of how C.S. Lewis passed from Atheism through to Theism, and onward to Christianity. Lewis says in the Preface that he knew of no autobiography in which the parts devoted to the earlier years were not by far the most interesting. As such, the entire first half of his own consists of a detailed recollection of childhood and adolescence. The second half is devoted to tracing his adult intellectual interests and particularly to recounting the thought processes which led him in his thirtieth year to a profound conversion experience.
Lewis said "How far the story matters to anyone but myself depends on the degree to which others have experienced what I call 'joy'." By "joy" he was referring to his concept of "sehnsucht" a German word that came closest to the sense of yearning or longing that Lewis felt as early on as six years old. Sehnsucht is an experience difficult to define... it is a longing for an object which is never fully given, coupled with a sense of alienation or displacement from what is desired. Perhaps another way of describing it could be a ceaseless yearning which always points beyond itself. It is this elusive nature of sehnsucht that Lewis had in mind when he (in typical brevity) coined the phrase "our best havings are wantings." At any rate, sehnsucht or "joy" was such a crucial element in the development of Lewis that we find it here in the title of his life story, and the "surprise" for him was in the gradual realization that joy (as such) was not foreign, contrary to, unaddressed by or otherwise OPPOSED to theism. In fact, Lewis began to see that the most religious writers (Plato, Aeschylus, Virgil, Spenser, Milton, Sir Thomas Browne, Herbert, Donne, Chesterton, MacDonald) were those in whom he found the most kinship in this respect, while those who did not "suffer from religion" (Shaw, Gibbon, Voltaire, Wells, John Stuart Mill) seemed as nourishing as old dishwater. He concluded that "A young man who wishes to remain a sound atheist cannot be too careful of his reading."
Even though the book is never preachy, I believe that the above conclusion applies to any atheist that reads Surprised By Joy through to the end. As with other writings by Lewis, Christianity emerges as something that actually makes a lot of sense. It's not until the last page that Lewis takes this final step, and his theism becomes "not a god, but God." My title for this review is taken from that last page, where Lewis describes what happens when one accepts the Incarnation.
3 people found this helpful
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on February 8, 2003
As many have noted, there are parts of this book that tend to drag a bit and are less than gripping. These parts, found mostly in the middle chapters, are the most important descriptions that Lewis gives us in explanation of his conversion. These chapters methodically, if somewhat dryly, layout the thought patterns that Lewis went through in his various stages philosophy. They are the equation of how he got from A to B (including the detours that he took to C, G, and F). If the reader will force himself to read them slowly and methodically, he/she will be rewarded with a much deeper understanding than without.
On the whole, Lewis's account of his conversion is raw and honest. He spares himself no punches in describing his own arrogance and 'priggishness'. The author is upfront in admitting that his memory may be flawed on some items. Some readers may be struck at the author's deep humility at always portraying everyone in his story in the best possible of lights, regardless of any 'deservedness'.
For sheer entertainment value, I found his descriptions of his early childhood, his relationship with his brother and father, and his home and surroundings quite charming. Having never been to Britain, I felt that I was treated to a slice of life I will likely never experience the likes of. His accounts of his life at Wyvern (school) should give all parents pause in considering their own children's education, both academic and social. If there is an "Ah, ha!" moment in this book, for me it is near the end where Lewis proposes that could we (as humans) strip God of all his powers to 'punish' us, that we should still worship and adore, simply because God was God - not because we could be punished (sent to Hell) for doing otherwise. Indeed, Lewis makes clear that Hell is not about geography, but about separation from God, separation from God being the definition of the nature of Hell.
If I have any complaints about this book, it is only one, and is perhaps forgiveable. I was sorely disappointed that Lewis did not include an account of his becoming Christian. While Lewis explains that he felt still too close to explain it, I felt disappointed in some measure. Still, this does not detract from what the book does have to offer, which is quite a lot. There are lessons to be learned and I have little doubt that I will aquire new perspectives upon successive re-readings.
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on November 7, 2003
Lewis says the two families from which he sprang were extremely different in both temperament and origin. On his dad's side there was the Welsh lineage. He describes them as being sentimental, passionate, and rhetorical. While the Hamiltons, on his mother's side were less passionate, more critical and ironic. On both sides, his parents were "bookish" people. He says his brother was a blessing to him, although the two of them were different also.
I love the description of the house full of books in which he grew up. He writes: "My father bought all the books he read and never got rid of any of them. There were books in the study, books (two deep) in the great bookcase on the landing, books in a bedroom, books piled as high as my shoulder in the cistern attic, books of all kinds reflecting every transient stage of my parents' interest..."
He talks about staking out his claim in the attic and making it his study. Early on he became a reader and writer. It was a love affair with communication. He discovered his gift and pursued it from then on.
This book traces the stages of his spiritual journey as well. He is very straightforward in describing what was going on in his mind at various stages. In reading about his unique experiences one acquires insight that can be beneficial in reflection on one's own life.
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on May 9, 2001
This book is essential for anyone curious about the life of Lewis. Or anyone who his a fan of his thought.
This book is a bout the life and conversion of Lewis, told as an autobiography, as opposed to an allegory as in "Pilgrim's Regress." It culminates with Lewis's conversion to Anglican Christianity:
"You must picture me alone in that room in Magdalen, night after night, feeling . . . the steady, unrelenting approach of Him who I so earnestly desired not to meet. . . I [finally] gave in and admitted that God was God, and I knelt a prayed: perhaps, that night, the most dejected and reluctant convert in all England. I did not see then what is now the most shining and obvious thing: the Divine humility will accept a convert even on such terms. The Prodigal Son at least walked on his own feet. But who can duly adore that Love which will open the high gates to a prodigal who is brought in kicking, struggling, resentful, and darting his eyes in every direction for a chance of escape?"
This book, however is not religious mumbo-jumbo, and is not just strictly a religious text, but it encompasses other aspects of Lewis's life: his experience as a son, a brother, a student, an intellectual freebooter, etc.
On a human level, this book has touched and resonated with me more than any other book I have read, outside of Scripture. I have experienced many of the same things Lewis had experienced. In a slightly different way, and in a different order, but there was enough of the essence of the events to harmonize with me. I almost felt that I was Lewis in a way.
Even if you are a non-Christian, non-believer, or a non-interested person, I recommend this book as part of one humans experience in life, as one slice of humanity!
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on December 20, 1999
The mark of a good teacher is the degree to which his students learn even when, or especially when, he goes off on a tangent. By that measure, Lewis ranked among the best, and the Medieval cornocopia of miscellaneous ideas that is this book is an education. You learn philosophy, English and Irish topography, education, jokes, a theory of language study, a theory of C.S.Lewis, and most of all, everything you did or did not want to know about literature. Actually, some of what he says on that subject assumes more knowledge than most of us are likely to possess.
Yes, there is also a story here also, about how Lewis searched for Joy and found Jesus instead. (The title is a pun, by the way, worth five stars all by itself.) And the interuptions and detours tend to enhance the reader's appetite for the story, rather than detract from it.
I don't agree with the reader below, or with the criticism in A.N.Wilson's biography which it parallels. Reason clearly played a central role in his conversion. In this book, however, he describes the effect of the reasoning on him, rather than recounting the particular arguments in detail as he has done in other books. He said the book was going to be subjective, even apologized for the fact in the preface! To speak subjectively is not to belittle the objective facts which act on the subject; to make that equation shows a fundamental misunderstanding of Lewis' thought and of thought in general. For example, Lewis describes here how the "most hard-boiled atheist I ever met" came into his room one day and admitted that the evidence for the Gospels was "surprisingly good." Lewis describes his shock, and the effect this idea had on him. But if you want a fuller version of Lewis' reasoning on that subject, written just a little bit later than this book, see his brilliant and devastating little essay, Elephants and Fernseed -- which to my mind drove a stake through the heart of all Higher Criticism, including that written decades after his death, such as Wilson's silly biography of Jesus. Lewis also speaks of the effect the arguments of his Christian friends and the books he read had in converting him to Christianity, but again don't expect him to give you those arguments here.
My one criticism is Lewis ought not to have subjected his father to his satirical and rather cutting brand of humor as he does in a few passages.
Author, True Son of Heaven: How Jesus Fulfills the Chinese Culture
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on April 28, 2003
As much as C.S. Lewis hems and haws in his preface about how suffocatingly subjective and uninteresting this book will be to many readers, there are few books in Lewis' corpus that I have gleaned more joy and help from. Lewis takes us on a tour through his adventures in joy, that peculiar longing for something that is itself more enjoyable than the thing longed for, this desire that he found ultimately only has its fulfillment in Christ, as joy is merely a longing for the heavenly. He brilliantly analyzes his earlier life, exposing his childhood follies and rejoicing in his youthful literary loves; several times I found myself laughing out loud about similar mistakes and mishaps I had fallen into. He scatters his typically brilliant social commentary and theological insight throughout the work, and a chapter never goes by without gaining a preciously helpful understanding of some important topic. This book is easily among the top three autobiographies I have ever read.
"I have tried so to write the first chapter that those who can't bear such a story will see at once what they are in for and close the book with the least waste of time." Go ahead and read that first chapter. You won't want to stop.
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