Text Patterns - by Alan Jacobs

Thursday, October 22, 2009

the way it was

Last Tuesday evening I attended a lecture by Walter Hooper, the long-time prime custodian of C. S. Lewis's literary estate. He was narrating the history of his involvement with Lewis's writings, focusing especially on all the editing he has done — editing for which all who have worked on Lewis, present company included, owe him a great debt.
A couple of points in the talk stood out, I thought.
First — this was actually a response to a question at the end — Hooper commented that while he read Lewis for the first time in 1953, over the next ten years, he had a good deal of difficulty acquiring Lewis's books. There was a bookstore in Greensboro, North Carolina with which he had a standing order for any Lewis books they could turn up, but it took him a long time to acquire most of the Lewis oeuvre. (I now wish I had asked him how many Lewis books he owned by the time he met the author in 1963, just months before Lewis's death.)
A closely related matter was the chief theme of the talk: Hooper's prime concern in his early years of working for the Lewis estate was to keep some of Lewis's books from going out of print, and to bring the others back into print. I am not sure how many of Lewis's books were in print, either in the UK or the US, when Lewis died, but it would be a fraction of the number in print today. (Thanks to Hooper's editorial efforts there are Lord knows how many volumes of periodical pieces that Lewis had never collected in his lifetime.)
It's hard to believe that there was a time when C. S. Lewis books were scarce, when you couldn't track them down without great effort and great patience. (And I guess one of the prime justifications for Google's digitization project is to prevent anyone's books being so hard to find in the future.)
One last anecdote: I have claimed that Lewis's greatest book is his history of English literature in the sixteenth century — he took fifteen years to write it — which led me to smile when Hooper recalled a conversation he had with CSL's brother Warnie in the late 1960s. Warnie lifted a copy of that hefty volume, looked at it with some puzzlement, and said, "I don't suppose anyone has ever read this, do you?"


  • Christopher McNeely said...

    I'm reading OHEL as we speak and have already been richly rewarded. Lewis' opening essay, 'New Learning and New Ignorance', is full of 'a-ha!' moments and an utterly brilliant summation of the ideas at work in the transition from the Medieval to the Early Modern. I lost track of the times I noticed that Lewis had succintly decimated long-standing scholarly prejudices about the period in question, and thought of all the scholarly books published in the last 20 years or so that have been praised for saying the same thing.

    This book is a rich feast and I look forward to each supping.

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