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December 31, 2013

Philip Shenon on the Luxury of Reading for Pleasure

Posted by emily

Philip Shenon, the bestselling author of THE COMMISSION: The Uncensored History of the 9/11 Investigation, was a reporter for the New York Times for more than 20 years. His most recent book, A CRUEL AND SHOCKING ACT: The Secret History of the Kennedy Assassination, seeks to answer the questions that have haunted our nation for half a century: Was President John F. Kennedy killed by a single gunman? Was Lee Harvey Oswald part of a conspiracy? Did the Warren Commission discover the whole truth of what happened on November 22, 1963? Here, too, in our last Holiday Author Blog of 2013, Philip writes about a topic that is every bit as pervasive --- although slightly less conspiracy-oriented: the luxury of reading for pleasure and the joy it brings.

For five long years now, books for me have usually represented work --- and sadly, work alone. When not writing and researching my new book --- a history of the Warren Commission, published this fall in conjunction with the 50th anniversary of the Kennedy assassination --- I have been reading books, literally hundreds of them, drawn from that vast library of books about the president's murder. Too often, it has been the opposite of reading for pleasure.

So the Christmas of 2013 will be the first in half a decade in which I will have the luxury of setting aside whole days of my winter vacation to read for pure enjoyment. I hope it's not bad taste to say how delighted I am that the words "grassy knoll" appear in none of the books on my Christmas wish list.

Books figure in my earliest, happiest memories of the holidays. I'm trying to remember how old I was when I found the gift-wrapped box under the Christmas tree that contained the seven books that make up The Chronicles of Narnia. If any books fueled my early passion for reading, it was those classic high-fantasy children's novels by C.S. Lewis, beginning with THE LION, THE WITCH AND THE WARDROBE. (Of course, I am now enough of a fanboy about Lewis's work to know that some scholars believe that his Narnia prequel, THE MAGICIAN’S NEPHEW, should actually be read first.)

I admit I still have never had the chance to read any of the Harry Potter books, but it’s obvious that Lewis and J.K. Rowling have the same effect on young readers. There is the same wide-eyed enthusiasm among my nieces and nephews as they begin to page through one of the Potter books. I can only hope that the joy of Lewis's work is not being overlooked in all the Harry-mania.

My respect for Lewis has only grown with my recent discovery that he managed to turn out all seven of the Narnia books between 1949 and 1954, all the while carrying out his roster of teaching duties at Oxford University. It's humbling to realize that in the five years it took for Lewis to create his fantasy universe of mythical beasts and good-versus-evil adventure, to write books that would delight and inspire tens of millions of young readers around the world, some of us mere-mortal writers struggle to produce only a single book.