"In one of the most vivid memories from my childhood, nothing happens. On a clear, sunny day, I’m standing near a curb in the quiet suburban California neighborhood where my family lives, and I’m wishing, with every bit of my self, for two things. First, I want a place I’ve read about in a book to really exist, and second, I want to be able to go there. I want this so badly I’m pretty sure the misery of not getting it will kill me. For the rest of my life, I will never want anything quite so badly again.
The place I longed to visit was Narnia, the setting for a series of children’s novels by C.S. Lewis. There are things about these books that I, at age nine, did not yet understand and did not even realize were there to be understood. My relationship to Narnia would turn out to be as rocky as any love affair, a story of enchantment, betrayal, estrangement and reunion. A few years after the day I’m remembering, when I discovered some of the more obvious “secret” meanings in C.S. Lewis’ children’s books, I felt tricked, and for a long time I avoided even thinking about Narnia."
A colleague and I recently discussed how neither of us reads much nonfiction. With the exception of memoirs. Maybe the attraction is the narrative structure that resembles fiction, storytelling. The more emotional and personal content than most nonfiction. The focus upon pivotal events rather than the expansiveness of typical biography or autobiography. And reading memoirs? A personal favorite. In Laura Miller's The Magician's Book, I found all that I love about the reading memoir as well as a breezily erudite discussion of how a favorite read from childhood informs the life of a reader.
As you can see from the excerpt above, Miller's love for the Narnia books as a child led to disillusionment as a teenager when she accidentally discovered the Christian symbolism in the novels. As a nonbeliever, she felt betrayed by Lewis, by the realization that her special reading place, her sanctuary had been invaded by forces contrary to her own beliefs.
In chronicling her troubled relationship with the Narnia books, Miller divides her journey into three distinct sections of the text - Songs of Innocence, Trouble in Paradise and Songs of Experience. The love, the parting, the reunion. How does one reclaim a text essential to your identity? That defined you as both a reader and thinker as a child? That petted and coaxed those sensibilities that were just beginning to manifest themselves?
This book is a reading memoir with large elements of biography and literary criticism mixed in. Lewis and Tolkien's relationship and work extensively explored. The Chronicles examined in some depth not for the Christian symbolism but for the literary and artistic merits recognized by not just Miller here but Neil Gaiman, Jonathan Franzen and Susanna Clarke among others. Phillip Pullman's opinion that the books are "a peevish blend of racist, misogynistic and reactionary prejudice." All leading back to how one reader makes peace with a defining work from her childhood.
Perhaps the point I appreciated most in this book is a subject that is a popular topic of late on book blogs. How does one separate great art from the biases or prejudices it contains or arises from? Miller says it best here:
The honest, educated reader, when tackling the towering literary works of the past, now faces a different, though no less precarious task: how to acknowledge an author's darker side without losing the ability to enjoy and value the book. Prejudice is repellent, but if we were to purge our shelves of all the great books tainted by one vile idea or another, we'd have nothing left to read - or at least nothing but the new and blandly virtuous. For the stone-cold truth is that Virginia Woolf was an awful snob, and Milton was a chauvinist. The work of both authors can be difficult to read, but also immeasurably rewarding. Once upon a time, when people believed encounters with great art were morally uplifting, it was easier to summon the extra bit of initiative required to give the classics a try, and literature professors were expected to encourage them. Today, scholars are more likely to tell readers about the pernicious influence of the great books they used to revere."
Love this. If this passage appeals to you, this book may also. And as reading memoirs find their most admiring audience among those with similar sensibilities, let me run a few keywords by you: Lewis, Tolkien, Narnia, Gaiman, Pullman, fancy versus fantasy, mythopoeia, Sehnsucht, The Allegory of Love. Instant recognition of items on this list may signal a comfortable fit between book and reader. And if, as a child, you ever had the same experience as Lucy Pevensie looking into the magician's book only to find a bit of perfection but struggling to hold on to that vision as childhood streams behind you then this book is also for you. It is ultimately a romance between a girl and a stack of books, full of the usual ups and downs of profound attachments. A romance with a happy ending, of a love retrieved and redefined. Loved it.