I’ve been thinking about comfort re-reads since writing about them on Monday. I went looking for a quote from C.S. Lewis on the atmosphere of a book. I found what I was looking for, but cannot quote the whole essay. You should read “On Stories” which was first published in Essays Presented to Charles Williams (1947) but can now most easily be found in the collection Of This and Other Worlds. I’ll quote a little from the essay, but understand that I’m writing from my own experience to make a particular point about re-reading, whereas Lewis’s essay tries to redeem popular “stories” or “romances” which is what he calls plot-driven books.
I re-read books for the particular atmosphere they contain. Lewis read stories for their particular atmosphere, not just the excitement of the plot, but for the particular kind of excitement in each book. One of his examples compares the book King Solomon’s Mines with the movie version. This is what he says:
“I was one taken to see a film version of King Solomon’s Mines. Of its many sins — not least the introduction of a totally irrelevant young woman in shorts who accompanied the three adventurers wherever they went — only one concerns us here. At the end of Haggard’s book, as everyone remembers [you don’t? It’s ok, neither do I], the heroes are awaiting death entombed in a rock chamber and surrounded by the mummified kings of that land. The maker of the film version, however, apparently thought this tame. He substituted a subterranean volcanic eruption, and then went one better by adding an earthquake. … No doubt if sheer excitement is all you want from a story and if increase in dangers increases excitement, then a rapidly changing series of two risks (that of being burned alive and that of being crushed to bits) would be better than the single prolonged danger of starving to death in a cave. But that is just the point. There must be a pleasure in such stories distinct from mere excitement or I should not feel that I had been cheated in being given the earthquake instead of Haggard’s actual scene. What I lose is the whole sense of the deathly (quite a different thing from simple danger of death) — the cold, the silence, and the surrounding faces of the ancient, the crowned and sceptred, dead. You may, if you please, say that Rider Haggard’s effect is quite as ‘crude’ or ‘vulgar’ or ‘sensational’ as that which the film substituted for it. I am not at present discussing that. The point is that it is extremely different. The one lays a hushing spell on the imagination; the other excites a rapid flutter of nerves. In reading that chapter of the book curiosity or suspense about the escape of the heroes from their death-trap makes a very minor part of one’s experience. The trap I remember for ever: how they got out I have long since forgotten.”
For Lewis, the appeal of the scene in the book is a particular atmosphere, not just the danger of the situation. Later in the essay he says he doesn’t like The Three Musketeers because “the total lack of atmosphere repels me.” When one re-reads, of course, the excitement or suspense or surprise are gone, but the atmosphere remains. Lewis again: “We do not enjoy a story fully at the first reading. Not till the curiosity, the sheer narrative lust, has been given its sop and laid asleep, are we at leisure to savour the real beauties.”
When I’m looking for a particular kind of atmosphere, I go back to old favourites. I’m also always looking for new favourites, though, places with atmosphere that I might want to revisit in the future.