In Case You Missed It:
The Magician's Book, Laura Miller, Little, Brown and Company, 2008
I will start with a disclosure: I chose this book because I am a huge fan of Laura Miller's book reviews and discussions on Salon.com. (Her reviews are intelligent, tough yet compassionate, and on-target, and if she told me to go read the nutrition label on a cereal box I would figure she had good reason.) That being said, I was a bit hesitant to read The Magician's Book, her non-fiction exploration of The Chronicles of Narnia, their author C.S. Lewis, and her feelings of love for and betrayal by them. While I, too, remember loving The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe as a child, I don't remember loving the rest of the Chronicles nearly as much. Furthermore, I have not read them since childhood and don't remember them in great detail.
I felt an immediate connection to the book and to the author, however, in the way you connect to someone whom you discover shares your love for reading. Probably like many of you who take the time to read book blogs and reviews, I spent countless hours as a child curled up (in my 1970's, bright yellow, vinyl beanbag chair) reading book after book. To read Miller's reflections on her childhood reading enchantment is a way of looking back at my own, but through a different lens and with the advantage of an adult perspective. Miller has a remarkable way of capturing the wonder that child readers experience with books and characters that they love. For example, when she describes the feeling of friendship she felt toward Lucy, the main character of The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe, Miller says, "...she inhabited another, unreachable world, but we would have been the best of friends if ever we met, I was sure of it." I am certain that every reader who has ever fallen in love with a book can relate. I now have a bookworm daughter as well, so when Miller discusses the elements of stories that are moving, engaging, or transporting for child readers, it has added significance.
The Magician's Book is both an in-depth examination of the Chronicles and their author and a wonderful vehicle for exploring the elements of children's fiction. Miller incorporates well-known authors' (Neil Gaiman, Jonathan Franzen, Philip Pullman, Susanna Clarke's) reactions to the Narnia Chronicles throughout the book, and draws on other experts' work on children's literature (Bruno Bettelheim, John Goldthwaite). They offer valuable insight into subjects such as the role of animals, the absence of parents, adventure, simple vs. complex morality, cultural stereotyping, social status, and gender roles and restrictions in children's stories.
The Magician's Book is elegant, extremely well-researched, and an engaging read, but it is not going to be for everyone. This book will appeal to you if you have read and loved, at the very least, The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe, and also are already interested in learning quite a bit more about C.S. Lewis. It will appeal even more to readers with an academic background in literature or literary criticism (which I do not have) and to serious writers of children's fiction (which I am not). The second half of the book goes into very great detail about Lewis' close friendship with the writer J.R.R. Tolkien and offers a rather scholarly comparison of their spiritual views, approaches to writing, the ways in which they influenced each others' work, and how they understood and incorporated mythology and folklore in their writing. There is much that is interesting here for a layperson such as myself, but also more than I needed.
If anything, The Magician's Book sparked my interest in reading/rereading The Chronicles and some of the other books she refers to, but armed with new information. I also imagine that it would make an outstanding point of departure for a senior seminar or graduate course, in which students would read and discuss The Magician's Book, The Chronicles of Narnia, and The Golden Compass series, among other works. I would have loved such a class in college, and The Magician's Book may just have me undertaking that reading list, syllabus or no.