The Taser's Edge

The Magician’s Book by Laura Miller

The Magician’s Book: A Skeptic’s Adventures in Narnia by Laura Miller looked promising when I happened to see it at Duke’s Lilly Library.  I love memoirs, I love books, and I love The Chronicles of Narnia.  I am the target audience for a book which is a memoir about loving books, and particularly about loving The Chronicles.  Or I thought I would be.

The book’s main title refers to a book that Lucy Pevensie finds on one island in The Voyage of the Dawn Treader.  Lewis’s narrator says of her encounter with the book (quoted on the first page of Miller’s book), “ever since that day [of reading from the Magician’s Book] what Lucy means by a good story is a story which reminds her of the forgotten story in the Magician’s Book.”

For Miller, the always sought after Magician’s Book was The Chronicles, which had captured her heart and imagination as a child, until she realized that her own drift from faith (or her discovery that she had never had faith in Christianity) had alienated her from enjoying that past source of joy.  Later in life, she decided to try to return to Narnia, to see if she can reclaim part of the joy she found there, without Lewis’ Christianity.  This book is her wide-ranging reflections and conversations about that attempt.  Sounds great, right?

The problem with this book is that it contains at least three books, and it meanders between all three: one is about returning to Narnia as a non-Christian who has realized that The Chronicles are about Christianity; one is about being a lover of literature in general; and one is about C.S. Lewis as a person.

The first book is named by the subtitle, A Skeptic’s Adventures in Narnia, but Magician’s Book disappointingly never has that story as its center.  Narnia is always the jumping off point for other considerations.  What’s more, Miller has created a memoir which manages to tell us very little about herself.  In a book whose title would suggest that it is about a skeptic looking at Christianity through a set of children’s novels, the deepest self-analysis that Miller offers is to say that she doesn’t have a religious “temperament,” and that is why she didn’t connect to her Roman Catholic upbringing.  A better subtitle might be A Editor Skates Around Narnia.  That would have at least been accurate.

The second book Miller is writing, about loving literature, is where the author’s passion clearly resides.  She seems to want to write about that larger topic, and thus her return to Narnia is a return to the roots of her love of literature.  It is through this part of the book that Miller is able to bring in other book-loving authors.  A favorite quote for me is Neil Gaiman’s: “I would read other books, of course, but in my heart I knew that I read them only because there wasn’t an infinite number of Narnia books.”  Within this book about book-loving, however, it’s not really about Narnia; Narnia is just the instrument to talk about something else, imaginative literature in general.

Miller’s third book within a book is the most disappointing, and that is the biography of C.S. Lewis.  I’m all for learning new things about favorite authors, even things that sully my view of them, but Miller goes into the worst kind of biography here, the amateur psychoanalyzing kind.  She talks about reading Freud and Lacan in undergrad literary theory courses, but reading Lacan does not make one a psychoanalyst for the living, let alone someone who has been dead for 40+ years.  This seems to be a common trap for the contemporary biographer, and it was dissapointing to see Miller fall into it.

There are wonderful sections of this book, and with a more heavy-handed editor it could have been a great book (a description true of plenty of meandering memoirs which would be better if their editors’ reined in their authors), but as it is I can’t really recommend more than the following.  Read the parts you like, and trust yourself when other parts don’t seem worth reading.  They probably aren’t.

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