Monday, May 16, 2011

My Life in Books: Out of the Silent Planet

There are some books that are just what you need to read, right when you need to read them. Sometimes these books are genuinely good; sometimes they fill an immediate need and are not good in themselves. I've read plenty of the latter, only to return to them and wonder, Why did this book change my life? I'm still thankful for the work done through the book, but I prefer to retain my original opinion untainted, shrouded in nostalgia.

(This, by the way, is the reason I refuse to rewatch Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull: I knew as I watched it that it was terrible, but the excitement of seeing Indiana Jones on the big screen overruled the movie's inherent flaws. I'm not sure that grace would hold out for a second viewing.)

I was afraid that C.S. Lewis's Out of the Silent Planet would fall into the second category above, that I would reread it in adulthood and wonder why I ever liked it. But before I discuss my most recent rereading of this book, I should go back to the beginning, to explain the book that made me a reader in the first place.

This is the version my
dad had. Plan 9 from
Outer Space, anyone?
I first encountered Out of the Silent Planet in fifth grade or so. I had finished Lewis's Chronicles of Narnia (or at least the ones that had interested me--any book with a boat or an animal in the title was stricken from the reading list) and asked my dad for a recommendation of what to read next. I picture me walking into his basement office, chest puffed up because I had finished unassigned chapter books all by myself. Dad handed me Out of the Silent Planet, which he explained was one of his favorite books. He had the old mass market paperbacks, the covers of which looked like those bad sci-fi movies from the '60s. I sat down in the ugly green chair in his office while he continued to work. The meaning of the book was inscrutable to me from the first page. Was it even in English? And what was a walking-tour? If I did understand anything, I didn't think it worth understanding. I quietly skulked back up to my room with the book in hand and promptly abandoned it. Round 1: Out of the Silent Planet.

After my dad died, I didn't really want to do anything, least of all school. But I was still (mostly) forced to go, and so I decided to occupy my time there with things other than schoolwork. My schoolwork wasn't very challenging anymore, and I thought to myself, Smart people read books. If I want to be smart, I should start reading. (I wish I could say I had better motives.) I wasn't sure I'd be able to stick with reading because it had been a while since I'd read something I enjoyed, but it was certainly worth a try. I remembered my dad's recommendation from long ago, and I picked up Out of the Silent Planet again. I don't know what changed--obviously I could understand more and my reading had improved; school was much less interesting to me, as was socializing with my classmates; the book bore extra weight considering my dad recommended it and he was no longer there. Whatever the case may be, I devoured it. I hadn't devoured any books since I was in elementary school. Books were things my teachers assigned. I read them because I had to, but in my unoccupied hours, I viewed my own time as too precious to waste on them. Besides, I had a Nintendo 64 at the time--do books have vibrant colors and lots of action?

It turns out they did. At least Out of the Silent Planet did. This reading of Out of the Silent Planet quite literally changed my life. After finishing it, I immediately picked up Perelandra, the book that follows Out of the Silent Planet in Lewis's Ransom trilogy. And after that, my free time slowly became less and less oriented toward video games and more and more oriented toward reading. Round 2: Me.

In college I wanted to share this book that had changed my life with my friends. I was leading a book club at the time (surprise!), so I chose it as one of our selections. The group didn't care for it very much, and whether I was swayed by their opinion or I didn't think liking anything with spaceships was "smart" enough, I found my opinion of the book had gone way down. Round 3: Out of the Silent Planet.

This year brought me full-circle. I haven't been very interested in reading this year, and I fault Doctor Zhivago. What a poor choice to read that book in winter! (I might add, what a poor choice to read that book at all--feel free to disagree in the comments.) After finishing Doctor Zhivago, I finished my duties reviewing the books I had in the queue and was done with books for a few months. I started a few, trying to get back in the habit, but I couldn't finish them. Nothing caught my interest. It was at this point that someone chose a selection from Perelandra for the reading group at work. I remembered just how much I loved the Ransom trilogy and how long it had been since I last tried to read the books. I remembered the effect Out of the Silent Planet had on me the first time, and I thought, Maybe this book can do it again.

I suppose time will tell if rereading this book worked. I will say that one of the marks of a great book, in my opinion, is that it makes you want to start another book immediately after finishing it. And after finishing Out of the Silent Planet, like my first foray into Lewis's Mars years ago, I immediately started a new adventure.

(A brief note about the Scribner version of the book, pictured at the top of this post: it's not often that I notice the editing in a book, but this version is an exception. Whoever edited this book decided to update Lewis's British punctuation--specifically his single quotes used for dialogue--with American double quotes. However, the editor must have used a simple find-and-replace and not had anyone proofread it afterward. As a result, apostrophes [which look like double quotes to the undiscerning eye of a computer] are double quotes, most notably when they denote plural possessives. While this does not hamper meaning too often, it is annoying nonetheless. I recommend the book, not the Scribner version, even though the Scribner version is prettier than other, older editions.)


  1. I very much love the whole trilogy! Perelandra being at the top of the list. I have just recently re-read the entire trilogy just a few months ago... enjoyed it the first time and I agree with your thought "A good book makes you want to read another one immediately"... so true. And for the discerning heart, there is so much more in these books than mere words on a page or a good story...

  2. MaryL, Perelandra is my favorite of the three as well. The whole series--like so much of Lewis's work, but particularly this series and Till We Have Faces--amazes me in that I have no idea how he came up with the idea. Even reading his explanations, I don't really understand his inspiration.

  3. I read the series a few years ago because of your suggestion, think. I liked it. I'll have to read it again to get a fuller effect, of course. I think I've even written down some passages from the series.

  4. I've read the first and second books in the trilogy. For me, Out of the Silent Planet was better than Perelandra. Maybe you can post another review on the second book to explain why you like it best? Also, I had heard that the third book falls quite short of the first two, so I haven't read it yet. Thoughts?

  5. @ismile4christ--I'm glad you liked them. Sometimes my book recommendations fall flat.

    @Jared--I'll have to reread Perelandra to fully remember (it's been a while). I liked the third book in the series; you just have to understand that it's quite different (and strange--it takes place on earth, for one). It took more effort to get through, but I still thought it was worth it. (If you read Planet Narnia or The Narnia Code [both by Michael Ward] the third book makes a whole lot more sense.)

  6. I enjoyed reading this. I totally resonated with your experience of books and enjoyed your description of each season of your relationship with this book.