Publishing deal spotlights C.S. Lewis

By Boston  Globe Staff, 4/7/2001

The stories of C.S. Lewis are familiar to millions of children: a fantastical, hidden world ruled by an evil witch, loved by a great lion.

Less familiar to the 65 million purchasers of Lewis's ''Chronicles of Narnia'' are that the stories are Christian allegories, penned by the Oxford don after J.R.R. Tolkien helped convert the one-time atheist to Christianity.

To many, Lewis, who lived from 1898 to 1963, was one of the great Christian apologists of the 20th century. Now the publishing industry is betting there is a larger audience waiting to discover Lewis's works.

After a multimillion-dollar deal between HarperCollins Publishers and the Lewis estate, the publishing house is re-issuing all of Lewis's major works with slick new covers, programming for book clubs, a future Web site (www.beliefnet.com/cslewis), and an essay contest .

The texts had hardly vanished - ''The Screwtape Letters,'' a 1942 work of satire in which a devil instructs an apprentice, already sells 150,000 copies a year, while ''Mere Christianity,'' which was developed as a series of radio talks on faith, sells 230,000 copies annually. And Lewis's marriage to his wife, Joy, was chronicled in the 1993 movie ''Shadowlands,'' starring Anthony Hopkins and Debra Winger.

''Few resources are more often used than the writings of C.S. Lewis,'' said the Rev. Mark D.W. Edington, who recommends the works to students as chaplain to Harvard College. ''If they come from some sort of church background but are wrestling with their own Christianity, then I point them to `Mere Christianity.' If the questions point more in the direction of a moment of self-doubt or low self-esteem, I suggest `Till We Have Faces.' If they've sustained the loss of a parent or close friend, I suggest `A Grief Observed'.''

But the publishing house, trying to create a broader audience for works by an author who has been dead for 40 years, is also trying to create buzz by reintroducing Lewis to authors and academics.

''Over the last 10 years, religion publishing has grown by leaps and bounds, and C.S. Lewis's books have sold several hundred thousand copies a year before we took over,'' said Mary Ellen Curley, marketing director for HarperCollins. ''We're looking to broaden him to anyone who is interested not only in Christianity, but in a broader sense of spirituality - the seekers out there.''

This week at Harvard, a poet, a psychiatrist, and a philosopher took turns praising Lewis's work, comparing him to everyone from St. Augustine to Sigmund Freud.

Poet Kathleen Norris, author of ''The Cloister Walk,'' said she was particularly struck by Lewis's language, his choice of words that reach out to readers as if they were listeners. ''He is valuable to show the strength of the imagination,'' she said. ''He writes very personally, but there is not a trace of narcissism, and that is incredibly valuable.''

The psychiatrist, Dr. Armand Nicholi, and the philosopher, Boston College professor Peter Kreeft, both said that they rejected Lewis on first reading because they thought his work too simple, but later came to rely on him for the logical clarity of his faith. Nicholi now teaches a course at Harvard using Lewis and Freud as foils to one another, while Kreeft has written a biography of Lewis.

''Lewis's appeal today continues ... [because] he does have real insight into human nature and the human condition, and unfortunately that doesn't change over time,'' Nicholi said. ''When people read him and look at their own experience, they find it resonates.''

Nicholi argued that Lewis had a profound understanding of human nature that is reflected in his writings on a variety of human experiences, such as grief. Lewis's wife was diagnosed with cancer the year the pair got married, and died four years later.

And Kreeft argued that Lewis ''is enormously relevant to young people today, because he doesn't strive to be relevant today. He isn't interested in fashions.''

This story originally ran on page 2 of the Boston Globe on 4/7/2001 and on its website at http://www.boston.com/dailyglobe2/097/metro/Publishing_deal_spotlights_C_S_Lewis+.shtml

Copyright 2001 Globe Newspaper Company.

 

Last Updated: Friday, September 07, 2001