Seven C. S. Lewis Books to Start With
What to read when you want to read a great Christian writer who wrote a lot of books.
C. S. Lewis is the anti-Mick Jagger. Fifty-two years after he died, the portly, homely, undramatic, humble man still reigns as the bookish Christian’s rock star. Millions still turn to him as a guide and guru. People read one book of his and fall in love with his writing.
And then they find that the man wrote a lot of books, a lot more than the new fan wants to read. The hard-working Lewis wrote more than 50 books, including the collections of essays, letters and diaries published after he died. Some of his books look like slow going — the 600-page Oxford History of English Literature in the Sixteenth Century: Excluding Drama, for example. One fat collection of book reviews that hadn’t been put in a book before came out only last year, and who knows what other writing remains to be discovered.
So here’s a Beginner’s Reading List for C. S. Lewis. It’ll give the new reader a place to start. Some of the choices are nearly arbitrary, in the sense that several other books would have done as well. The list includes only non-fiction books, but at the end, I’ve included a few works that put his thinking into a story.
I followed three rules when compiling the list: First, it should include seven books. Seven is still a lot of books to read by one author when we have so many other good writers to read. Second, the list focus on books that express the author’s mind or imagination or worldview and engage cultural and religious subjects. Third, the result of reading the books should be a knowledge of the man and not just his writings. The reader should not only know what Lewis said about X, but should be able to guess what he would have said about Y.
The C. S. Lewis Reading List
Here are my suggestions. The books are listed in the order I suggest they be read.
♦ The Screwtape Letters. Lewis’s innovative collection of letters from a senior devil to his incompetent nephew, a book that offers many striking and usually convicting insights into the nature of evil, not only in man but in society. It is a book often imitated, but never well. The Great Divorce could go here instead. I chose Screwtape because it’s convicts and prods me personally a lot more than does The Great Divorce.
♦ Letters from Malcolm: Chiefly on Prayer, one of Lewis’s last books and the best example of his devotional insight. It also reveals something about his prayer life. (Malcolm was made up, by the way.)
♦ The Abolition of Man. A very short book, originally a series of lectures, shrewdly analyzing the ways in which modern man rejects Man as well as God and presenting the classical and Christian alternative. It is a genuinely prophetic work. He turned its insights into a story in That Hideous Strength, the third (and to my view the best) book in his space trilogy.
♦ God in the Dock: Essays on Theology and Ethics. A posthumous collection of 48 articles and essays and a few letters to the editor. It is mostly a kind of applied or practical theology, in the sense that Lewis expresses his insight and learning in responding to various ethical, apologetic, evangelistic and cultural problems.
♦ The Four Loves. Lewis’s exposition of the four different kinds of love . It’s a theoretical book in one way, but offers a lot of wisdom and insight into the challenges we face in loving others and in loving God.
♦ Surprised by Joy. Lewis’s autobiography, written in his mid-50s, which is not only a winsome introduction to the man but an indirect exposition of his way of seeing the world. Lewis doesn’t talk about the dramatic events in his life, like fighting in the trenches in World War I, but he does say a lot about the world through telling the story of his life. He makes a lot of references to books he’s read, which can intimidate the rest of us, but just skip over them and keep going.
♦ Selected Literary Essays. A posthumous volume, it contains his famous lecture De Descriptione Temporum, in which he called himself a dionosaur. The book covers a great diversity of other subjects, from Austen to Kipling to psychoanalysis and literary criticism. It’s not overtly religious, but his engagement with these subjects says much about his mind. I’ll warn you that this is the most academic book in the list and the most expensive to buy.
Some readers will have noted the absence of Mere Christianity. It is not included because, as good as it is as a description of and argument for traditional Christianity — and I can’t think of anything better — it is not the most revealing of his particular way of thinking. And everyone reads it anyway.
Here are the fiction books to start with: The Magician’s Nephew and The Last Battle, the last two books of the Narnia Chronicles and the most “adult” of the seven, which I think became deeper and more fruitful for reflection as they went along; That Hideous Strength, which I’ve already mentioned; and Till We Have Faces, his exploration of questions of identity and of redemption through Greek myth, though it’s a book some Lewis fans love and others can’t stand.
So start reading. You can’t go wrong with C. S. Lewis. I’ll be monitoring the comments if anyone has questions or other suggestions.
Update: I changed the order, moving Surprised by Joy from first to sixth, after the protest of my friend Neil Gussman in the comments.
Senior Editor David Mills is the editor of The Pilgrim’s Guide: C. S. Lewis and the Art of Witness (Eerdmans). His “To See Truly Through a Glass Darkly: C. S. Lewis, George Orwell, & the Corruption of Language” can be found here and his “An Uncertain Certainty: How Screwtape Leads the Postmodern Man to Hell” can be found here.