18 January 2011


Life as a Reading Challenge, Chapter 3

I have started to see challenges everywhere I go. Just a few days ago, I stumbled upon this seemingly innocent quote from C.S. Lewis . . .

"It is a good rule, after reading a new book, never to allow yourself another new one till you have read an old one in between. If that is too much for you, you should at least read one old one for every three new ones."

. . . and I wondered why there isn't (to paraphrase his contemporary, G.K. Chesterton) a "Save Me from Being a Child of My Age!" Challenge. =P

It's a question I can answer for myself. It's too hard: that's why. One thing I learned recently is how quickly a challenge can turn into a chore. And there are few "reading chores" bigger than what this commitment demands. Whether one is reading an equal number of "old" and "new" books, making sure to alternate between the two--or at least one "old" book for every three "new" reads--it's a pretty big deal. And it's one that could, uh, get old fast.

(Note: use of scare quotes is due to the lack of a clear time frame. When, exactly, does a book become "old"? Joshua suggests letting it age fifty years. Because I like complicating perfectly straightforward stuff, I think that an individual reader can consider a book "old" only when it came out fifty years before the year he was born.)

On the other hand . . . I think Lewis is on to something--the same thing Chesterton was on to when he wrote of the "degrading slavery" of being merely a child of one's own age, which, in this case, comes from reading only the books of one's own age. (It presumably gets worse when one also keeps only to the books from one's own age group. =P)

Anyway, my thoughts on this issue haven't settled into anything definite yet, but I know I'm not too pleased with the reading I've already done this January. I've been used to thinking of myself as a very eclectic reader--but now my book list begs to differ:

Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince
J.K. Rowling
Middle Grade Fantasy

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows
J.K. Rowling
Middle Grade Fantasy

King Solomon's Mines
H. Rider Haggard
Classic Adventure Literature

Leigh Greenwood
Western Romance

The Supernaturalist
Eoin Colfer
Middle Grade Science Fiction

Gilda Joyce, Psychic Investigator
Jennifer Allison
Middle Grade Mystery

Johnny Dixon and the Spell of the Sorcerer's Skull
John Bellairs
Middle Grade Gothic

Out of seven books, exactly one can be properly described as "old." (The one from the 80s is just "retro.") And although I seem to have lots of variety when it comes to genres, there's no denying that most of my reading falls under the (marvelous) MG umbrella. And even the defense that at least it's out of my "age group" falls flat because I think it perfectly reflects my arrested emotional age. =P

A last note for this post:

For me, the quantity of books read is always second to the quality of the reading experience. I don't like reading books for the sake of reading them--or for the sake of quotas. But something about this measured mixing of "old" and "new" appeals to me: it is in the "both-and" spirit that makes reading so rich. I'll be thinking of this some more.

Image Sources: a) Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince by J.K. Rowling, b) Johnny Dixon and the Spell of the Sorcerer's Skull by John Bellairs


r said...

Bellairs wrote the books I wish I could write.

Birdie said...

You've given me a lot to think on. I love challenges but they do occasionally become a chore.

Lesa said...

I didn't know that quote but can relate-- too much of one thing is mindnumbing after awhile-- 3-4 yrs ago, I determined to read one classic to every 5 new books. I didn't hold to that but have certainly read more old books than before and lots more since starting the bookblog.

I feel the same way about quotas-- might be why I've already changed my mind about 2 readalongs but I am still planning on 2 challenges at least -- the foodie one for sure-- it seems to have lots of leeway so my reading can still be serendipitous.

I've already quoted your 'both-and' a couple of times in comments around the blogosphere since you said it in a previous post-- I just love it!!

So are you going to opt out of some of your challenges or forge ahead?

Syrin said...

I tend to stick to one series (or author) at a time as I read, gobble them all up one after the other, then move on to something else. I'm not entirely sure what the mix of old to new would be, though I do enjoy both.

I think I tend to be opposed to challenges because of the time constraints. I read faster than the average person, I think, but I choose to read slow. One to three chapters a night before bed is usually the best for me with some exceptions if I really want to know what happens. I finished Deathly Hallows in a week, for instance, when so many others read it all in one gasp the day it came out. I just can't do that, for whatever reason.

Enbrethiliel said...


R: That must be one of the Top 5 best things to say about an author!

Birdie: Thanks! I do think the occasional chore has its merits. What is a challenge for, if not for knocking us out of our comfort zones? And something about Lewis' suggestion falls into the realm of intellectual housekeeping--a truly necessary chore.

Lesa: I'm going to keep the commitments I've made the challenges I've signed up for--but unless something really juicy comes up, I doubt I'll be signing up for any more. =P Besides, you'll notice that I'm more enamoured of the challenges I think up than the challenges of others. So I don't really need outside enabling. LOL!

Now, "serendipitious" is precisely the word I want! What would I do without your combox wisdom? ;-) I'm a big believer in reading the right book at the right time, although the practical application of this ideal leads to a huge TBR pile up!

Syrin: I think I read Deathly Hallows in two and a half gasps. ;-) I can do a "readathon" when it's called for, which is probably why I like being forced to read slowly. I found that I enjoy a book more when I have to keep putting it down--because of travel, work, dinner with people around, etc. For me, a challenge would be to spread out the reading of a book!

Paul Stilwell said...

Lewis' advice is good in so many ways. This is the first time I've read the quote. I wish I had read it much earlier.

Enbrethiliel said...


Do I detect some reading-related regrets, Stilwell? ;-)

Paul Stilwell said...

Oh yes, indeed! Like my monomania in reading nothing but G.K.C. for quite a span, or O'Connor, or Merton.

Blech. One reason why Lewis' advice is good: one will be less inclined to become sickened by any one author. (Not that I'm totally sick of those three great writers!)

Enbrethiliel said...


I think I only had it for Chesterton. =P

Not that I regret that immersion in his writings; if anything, I wish I had realised that I wouldn't have all his books around forever (since they were mostly my university's copies) and read them even more intensely. There are so few writers I can say I really know because I don't go back to them as much as I should. J.R.R. Tolkien, for instance . . .