In November 2007, the National Endowment for the Arts issued a report packed with data revealing that the “habit of regular reading” was on the decline. In the same report, evidence was marshaled to show “how powerfully reading transforms the lives of individuals.” These days, we seem more invested than ever in the idea that words on the page can change you and that stories might produce power surges lasting a lifetime. Testimonials abound in volumes with titles ranging from A Passion for Books and The Book That Changed My Life to Bound to Please and Leave Me Alone, I’m Reading. C. S. Lewis, a bookish Oxford academic who turned to writing for children only late in life, reminisced about the power of what he called “favorite book[s].” Some readers find in their encounters with them experiences as “momentous” as love, faith, or grief: “Their whole consciousness is changed. They have become what they were not before.”
Laura Miller read Lewis’s Chronicles of Narnia series as a child, grew up to study literature at the University of California, Berkeley, and went on to become a founder of Salon.com. In her high-voltage narrative The Magician’s Book, she chronicles her own adventures as a reader of the seven novels in the fantasy series published between 1950 and 1956. She begins by describing a vivid childhood memory: standing near a curb in the California neighborhood where she grew up, filled with longing for Narnia and wishing for it to come to life. As a girl, she read the books “with a fervor that can inspire mystification and awe” in adults. As an adult, when asked about her favorite book, she found herself faced with a question: Was her childhood reading experience ephemeral (she did not, after all, adopt the book’s Christian orthodoxies) or did it achieve its soul-shaping potential?
To answer this question, Miller takes as her guide Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy, using a triadic structure parallel to the one mapped out for its twelve-year-old protagonist. In Pullman’s work, Lyra Belacqua acquires an instrument known as an alethiometer, a mechanism resembling a compass that yields information about the past, present, and future. Lyra is at first a nimble reader of the device, decoding its symbols and perceiving the truths conveyed in its bursts of beauty. As she matures, however, she can no longer rely on her instincts, and her skills quickly deteriorate. At the end of the story, a divine being tells her that she can regain her initial talent through work, “after a lifetime of thought and effort.”
Miller begins with “Songs of Innocence,” a hymn to the pleasures of childhood reading. She reminds us about Lucy, who, in Lewis’s The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, finds a “Magic Book” that enables her to cross over and enter its pages. Described as a book of spells, it contains words and pictures that become more actual and wonderful as she reads. Soon, the pictures come “crowding on her thick and fast,” and Lucy begins “living in the story as if it were real, and all the pictures were real too.” But the pages on the left-hand side slip away, lost forever, and Lucy discovers that she can only read what lies on the right-hand pages: “And she never could remember; and ever since that day what Lucy means by a good story is a story which reminds her of the forgotten story in the Magician’s Book.”
What more telling metaphor for what it feels like to read as a child? Many of us, like Miller, can recall moments in which something burst right out from the pages of a story, seizing us with unprecedented emotional force, to the point where the words seemed to register on our flesh. Do books really rewire our brains in some mysterious way? Robert Lawson, author of The Fabulous Flight and other children’s classics, once observed: “No one can possibly tell what tiny detail of a drawing or what seemingly trivial phrase in a story will be the spark that sets off a great flash in the mind of some child, a flash that will leave a glow there until the day he dies.”
Stories can at times make a kinesthetic claim on readers, enlisting something that might be called mimetic imagination, the capacity to enter into a fictional world and make it feel real. When Pullman read as a child, he went to places “richer and more glamorous than Port Said, Colombo, and Bombay.” He recalls the “thrill” of reading: “It is physical: my skin bristles, my hair stirs; my heart beats faster. I feel my body moving to the rhythm.”
As a student, Miller was taught that racism, sexism, class privilege, and homophobia “lurked everywhere” in literature. The classics were less revered than reviled, and revisiting Narnia meant coming to terms with what one writer has called the “readymade source of ‘Oriental’ imagery” used to create the Calormenes, along with the gender stereotypes found throughout Lewis’s Chronicles. In Rereadings, Anne Fadiman describes the shock effects of reading a beloved book, Lewis’s The Horse and His Boy, aloud to her eight-year-old son. Fadiman reveals that Henry quickly got “lost” in the story, falling under its spell, while she began probing the text, resisting its cultural assumptions: “I held my tongue for the first hundred pages or so, but finally I blurted out: ‘Have you noticed that The Horse and His Boy isn’t really fair to girls? And that all the bad guys have dark skin?’” Her son’s response is predictably fierce and unforgiving: “Henry shot me the sort of look he might have used had I dumped a pint of vinegar into a bowl of chocolate ice cream.”
Miller finds herself equally irritated by her college teachers’ insistence on “interrogating” and “dismantling” the ideologies of the “texts” read. She bristles at the attention paid to Lacanian psychology at the expense of broader questions about how stories pull us into other worlds and keep us hooked. Still, she cannot avoid seeing the “flaws” in the Chronicles of Narnia: “I winced at the depictions of the Calormenes and understood for the first time that the White Witch is a dominatrix. . . . All these reservations were piled on top of my fundamental disinterest in the books’ religious message, which to my adult ear arrives with the leaden thud of a Sunday newspaper full of ads.”
Refusing to give up on her first love, Miller is driven by racing energy and a passion that turns incandescent as she undertakes to “recapture the old enchantment.” She decides to try to reenter paradise by embracing Pullman’s idea of “thought and effort”: “What if I decided to know even more, to learn more, about how the Chronicles came to be written and all the various ways they have been and can be read? Then I might arrive ‘somewhere at the back’ and find a door open. Not the original one, not the wardrobe itself, but another kind of door, perhaps, with a different version of paradise on the other side.”
Miller takes us through the landscapes—literary and real—of Lewis’s life, navigating her way through the thickets of childhood trauma and loss, academic struggles and triumphs, personal joys and anxieties, and, above all, the curious friendship with J. R. R. Tolkien that was at times as disabling as it was enabling for Lewis. She visits the author’s boyhood haunts and the places he dwelled as an adult, digging “further up and further in.” In finding the writer, defining him and developing an understanding of his culture, she provides the intellectual heft that adults need to sustain them in their rereading of the Chronicles of Narnia. But almost perversely, the things she finds on her intellectual odyssey also make it nearly impossible to imagine how “Jack” Lewischildless and fussily attentive to his spiritual life—managed to write stories that have provided children with such sensory bliss. Miller, happily, preserves the mystery and magic even as she explores and excavates.
At a time when Pierre Bayard is teaching us how to talk about books we haven’t read, it is refreshing to come across an author who shows us how to talk about the books we love. Yet Bayard and Miller share certain beliefs, among them the conviction that our relationship to a book can be rich and complex, fraught and inexplicable. “Our relation to books is a shadowy space haunted by the ghosts of memory, and the real value of books lies in their ability to conjure these specters,” Bayard tells us. Miller conjures those specters, but she also moves us beyond childhood, revealing that the books we loved as children can continue to quicken and expand our imaginations, especially when we have a guide like this one to help us understand the miracle of how Lewis produced the intoxicating and addictive Chronicles of Narnia.
Maria Tatar is the John L. Loeb Professor of Germanic Languages and Literatures and chair of Folklore and Mythology at Harvard.