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June 11th, 2013

New C. S. Lewis biography

I've just finished the new C. S. Lewis biography by Alister McGrath, C. S. Lewis, A Life which I can recommend very highly.

He does a few things very well that other biographies haven't, and couldn't, have done. First, he is writing from a distance of 50 years after Lewis' death, not as someone who was personally connected with the man, and this allows him a certain perspective that many of the other biographers did not have. Instead, he relies on a close chronological reading of everything Lewis wrote, including his extensive collected letters.

This, for example, allows him to redate various events in Lewis' life, most notably the sequence of his conversion, which Lewis had treated and apparently misdated in Surprised by Joy – Lewis himself admits that dates aren't his strongest suit and such a correction is not surprising. But this perspective also allows McGrath to put some of the other famous events in Lewis' life, such as the debate with Elizabeth Anscombe or his marriage to Joy Gresham, in a light that is a bit different from what's been portrayed before. I can't say who's correct; I can say that McGrath's version does have the ring of truth. (By his account, the "debate" was probably not such a watershed event in Lewis' outlook as other writers have made it to be; and he argues convincingly that Lewis was hardly the socially inexperienced bachelor that Shadowlands made him out to be.)

One impressive addition is the final section, on the growth of Lewis' legacy after his death. I am always fascinated to see how public reputations grow and change with time. (For example, how did Einstein become the face of 20th century genius? But that's a different topic.)

I was also amused to discover how often, while visiting madtechie2718 , I have walked near sites where Lewis lived (before moving to the Kilns).

Incidentally, anyone interested in Lewis, and in the UK in November (unlike me, alas) might be interested in this event for the 50th anniversary of his death.

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