How to reclaim the first, intimate experience

How to reclaim the first, intimate experience

bringing back magic Miller

The Magician’s Book is her deep reading of The Chronicles of Narnia and its creator, CS, Lewis. Of all the books on reading that I have read, Laura Miller’s The Magician’s Book: A Skeptic’s Adventures in Narnia is the most beautiful and illuminating. She is also easily the most enjoyable, engaging and insightful critic writing on books, writers and the bookish life today. Certainly my favourite literary critic; the one I prefer to Michiko Kakutani, Michael Dirda and James Wood.  
 
The Magician’s Book is the story of  “one reader’s long, tumultuous relationship with the books of her childhood.” By the end of her reading, Miller finds a way to reclaim her first, intimate experience. “A perfect story,” she writers, “is no more interesting or possible than a perfect human being.” The clues lay in something the children’s writer Philip Pullman (creator of His Dark Materials trilogy) had once said to her. And this offered her a new way of re-reading, of making a second encounter. Pullman said that the original innocence and grace of the first reading is always and forever lost to us. What we can do, rather than dismiss the experience of a first enchanted reading is to plunge further into the book, until another grace replaces it, the grace of experience.

Second encounters

It’s as if your entering the book now from a back door, notes Miller. Since you can’t regain the grace you’ve lost, since there is no going back, go through that (that is, an even closer reading as if it were a second door) and acquire the other grace, “the conscious grace, the taught, the learned grace of a dancer”; honest and tempered now by knowledge and experience. This will be a truer picture of you, of “who we are, more human”. If a reader devotes time and energy to learning how to do this, she will once again reach a point where she can read the book better than she ever did before. This back entrance still leads to paradise, but a different version of paradise.  

As a child, she read and re-read the entire Narnia series. Re-visiting the books as an adult, Miller found many things problematic about it. As a child she hadn’t noticed its ideological subtext, but having easily sniffed it out as an adult, she felt betrayed.

“Although I miss the childhood experience of being engulfed by a story,” she notes, “I would not willingly surrender my adult ability to recognise when a writer is taking me someplace I don’t want to go.” And yet it was The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe that made a reader out of her.

It became the “the founding text of her passion for reading.” “A teacher I idolised handed me a copy — her copy — of The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. It was this book that made a reader out of me. It showed me how I could tumble through a hole in the world I knew and into another, better one, a world fresher, more brightly coloured, more exhilarating, more fully felt than my own. This revelation really did make a new person out of me. I re-read The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe and its six sequels countless times.”

She quotes Graham Greene: “Perhaps it is only in childhood that books have any deep influence on our lives. In later life we admire, we are entertained, we may modify some views we already hold, but we are more likely to find in books merely a confirmation of what is in our minds already... But in childhood all books are books of divination, telling us about the future.”

Lost charm

But, she points out, “if we return to them as adults, we sometimes find… that the décor is garish or uncomfortable. It’s not a place to which we’d care to invite our friends.” Talking of the disenchantment of other writers with their “radiant books of our youth” Miller cites the critic Clive James who now feels embarrassed about “his boyhood enthusiasm” for Arthur Conan Doyle’s stories. Miller notes, “Yet, when James reads Doyle now, he finds only a rummage sale of callow, long-discarded fantasies superseded daydreams of glamour, sex, bravery and deductive brilliance” which “are always funny when they are not shameful.”

Laura Miller’s colleague at Salon, Gary Kamiya, records a startlingly different response to a book from his adolescence. Kamiya read Kenneth Grahame’s children’s classic The Wind and the Willows when he was 14, and has since returned to it often. When the book turned 100, Kamiya read it again, and recorded that “its wonders seem greater than ever, its colours more glowing, its language more miraculous. Although it is uniquely mixed in style and matter, moving effortlessly from deadpan observation to piercing lyricism to raucous comedy to incantatory mysticism, it is a complete world. And like the old friend that it is, it always welcomes you back.”

Some of us have known the disenchantment with the books of our childhood and youth that Laura Miller describes, and some of us the joy of rediscovery that Kamiya experienced. Both are accurate and real and honest. In the end, Laura Miller found her way back to Narnia and (re) enchantment. But first she had to acknowledge, as difficult as it was, that the spell had been broken. Luckily, this is not the end.

What Kamiya goes on to say about The Wind in the Willows is true for every good book, whether read now or in our youth. And Laura Miller, I’m sure, will agree wholeheartedly: “There are certain books that become a permanent part of your life, like an old tree that stands at the bend of a favourite path. You may not notice them, but if they were taken away, the world would be less mysterious, less friendly, less itself.”

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