Friday, December 12, 2008

Laura Miller discusses the Narnia Books at LAPL

Although I don’t live in New York City, where writers, librarians, and publishers always seem to be getting together to chat, share books, and frolic (yes, I’m looking at you, Betsy Bird!), we inhabitants of the sleepy burg of Los Angeles do occasionally get to attend a fantastic literary event.

My very own Los Angeles Public Library hosted an ALOUD presentation this past Wednesday, December 10 featuring Laura Miller - journalist, book reviewer, and cofounder and senior writer for the book section. She has written a book called The Magician’s Book: A Skeptic’s Adventures in Narnia (Little, Brown, 2008), which is an exploration of the Narnia books and their author C.S. Lewis from the standpoint of a person who loved the books as a child and loves them still, even as her relationship toward and understanding of them have changed.

This isn’t a book review, as I’ve only read the introduction so far, but rather a pondering of some of the issues Miller raised during a free-ranging conversation with David Ulin, Los Angeles Times book editor – although really, it was less a conversation than a wonderfully rambling, intensely interesting monologue, occasionally punctuated by Ulin’s comments and questions.

Miller told us that, in writing The Magician’s Book, she was interested in literary criticism that would address not just the quality of the book but also the reading experience itself – the relationship that a reader has with a book. She also wanted to explore how books shape a person’s very identity, especially when the reader is young. As she says in her introduction, after comparing the relationship between book and reader to a love affair:

“The meeting of author and reader has a similar soul-shaping potential. The author who can make a world for a reader – make him believe that the people, places, and events he describes are, if anything, truer than his real, immediate surroundings – that author is someone with a mighty power indeed. Who can forget the first time they experienced this sensation? Who can doubt that every literary encounter they have afterward must somehow be colored by it?”

A point she made that resonated with me was that the way children read is so different than the way most adults read. A child doesn’t filter what she is reading through a whole lifetime of thoughts and experiences, but rather meshes with the text in an immediate way that does not seek out or even notice underlying patterns or symbols. This ability to immerse herself in a world where anything seemed possible is a quality that Miller misses now that she is an adult reader. Although she read the Narnia books over and over as a child, she always felt that “something different” might happen. The world Lewis created was so vivid and yet so “loose” that the story did not seem inevitable, giving Miller’s imagination free rein.

Here’s what Miller says in her introduction to The Magician’s Book:

“A lot of people remember the bliss of their earliest reading with a pang: their current encounters with books offer no more than faint echoes of what they once felt. I’ve heard friend and strangers talk about the days when they, too, would submerge themselves in a story, surfacing only to eat and deal with the minimal daily business of childhood. They wonder why they don’t get as much out of books now.”

Although at first Miller mourned the loss of that childhood ability to give herself completely to the world of Narnia every time she read the books, she came to realize that she is now bringing something new but just as valuable to her reading experience – the ability to look at the books with a whole new perspective, enriched by all that she has read and experienced and contemplated. It is not that she has lost any “innocence” or is jaded or disillusioned, but rather that she has changed and grown and is ready to see the books with fresh eyes. Miller compared this to Lyra’s ability to read the alethiometer in Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials series. Although Lyra loses this ability as she reaches puberty, it is not to be looked at as something lost, so much as a new understanding and maturity gained.

I have to say that I still read in almost the same intense and addicted manner as when I was a child, and I'm guessing that most book-addled, book-addicted adults feel the same. The best books are the ones that suck me in and allow me to imagine roaming around in their worlds at will. And although I no longer am certain that the very next mirror I touch just might allow me beyond the looking glass, I do still get that shiver of “Narnia!” whenever I find myself in a wooded area. The world is full of an underlying shimmer of enchantment, thanks to books.

Please check in with this website to see the podcast of Laura Miller’s presentation. As of this writing, it isn’t yet up, but it’s worth waiting for. For a Salon interview with Laura Miller conducted by Rebecca Traister, visit this site. And by all means, read the book! I’ll be doing that myself, once I tear myself away from Iain M. Banks’ Matter and Ysabeau S. Wilce’s Flora’s Dare (yes, fiction always comes first with me).


  1. Eva,

    Thanks for this report. I have always liked Laura Miller's work and have been very curious about this book. I've now finally broken down and ordered it (along with Perry Nodelman's new book and another one new one on children's literature that sounds interesting as well).

  2. Your report got me excited!
    I drove down to the Main and bought a signed copy.
    Keep up the good work.
    I believe in you. Genie

  3. Excellent posting. And for the record, I am mere months away from a possible move to L.A. So we'll be on equal footing then.

  4. This is one of those books that is hard to put down - so much resonates.
    Perhaps I exaggerated a wee bit - L.A. isn't a cultural wasteland (not only do we have some fine children's lit organizations, but we are home to an astounding number of children's writers). Ms. Bird, if you find yourself here, we'll welcome you with open arms!