Since Katie Couric first asked the question a couple of years back, journalists continue to pepper Sarah Palin with that classic ice-breaker: "So, what are you reading?" The subject came up again in a recent profile in the New York Times Magazine, and last week Barbara Walters returned to the question in interviewing Mrs. Palin as one of her "10 most fascinating people of 2010."
In both interviews Mrs. Palin cited C.S. Lewis as a favorite author she looks to for inspiration. This prompted talk-show host and comedienne Joy Behar of "The View" to deride Mrs. Palin and her choice of reading, asking: "Aren't those children's books?"Lewis would likely have appreciated making Mrs. Palin's reading list. But he probably would have appreciated the questions about it even more. For Lewis, one of the best ways to know a person was to know what they read. He was convinced that books defined us and shaped our character. He realized that books did more than prepare people for interesting conversations with journalists—they prepare us to respond to the crises we encounter in our own lives.Lewis explored the life-changing power of stories by writing one of his own, "The Voyage of the Dawn Treader," one of the seven books in "The Chronicles of Narnia." One of the key themes of this book is the old maxim—"You are what you read." He begins "The Voyage of the Dawn Treader" with one of the most memorable lines in the series: "There once was a boy named Eustace Clarence Scrubb, and he almost deserved it."Eustace, Lewis tells us, "liked books if they were books of information and had pictures of grain elevators or of fat foreign children doing exercises in model schools." In other words, Eustace didn't have time for the types of stories that Lewis wrote and thought were important—stories about "brave knights and heroic courage."Throughout "The Voyage of the Dawn Treader," Lewis tells us repeatedly that Eustace's biggest problem is that he "has read all the wrong books." Lewis cites this as the reason that Eustace is overwhelmed when he first arrives in Narnia and finds himself in a dragon's lair. "Most of us know what we should expect to find in a dragon's lair," Lewis writes, "but, as I said before, Eustace had read only the wrong books. They had a lot to say about exports and imports and governments and drains, but they were weak on dragons."To hammer the point home, Lewis describes why Eustace was not able to recognize an approaching dragon to quickly get to safety. "Something was crawling," Lewis writes. "Worse still, something was coming out of the cave. Edmund or Lucy or you would have recognized it at once, but Eustace had read none of the right books."Edmund and Lucy are the Pevensie siblings first introduced by Lewis in "The Lion, the Witch, and The Wardrobe." Because they read the right books, they know precisely how to behave. Edmund is able to think quickly on his feet and solve a key mystery on their journey, because he read "several detective stories." And Lucy is able to show compassion and help heal a wounded dragon because she knows that it "came to us to be cured, like in Androcles and the lion." For Edmund and Lucy, wisdom is born not from simply memorizing dates and facts. It comes from stories that enliven our imagination and give us a hope in the unseen.Mrs. Palin is on the right track by giving C.S. Lewis a prominent place on her reading list. Yet Ms. Behar and other Palin critics have dismissed Lewis's work, forgetting that Lewis was a medieval and renaissance scholar at Oxford and the author of several brilliant Christian apologetics. Ms. Behar's dismissal of children's books as less than important makes her a modern-day Eustace, the type of bully who mocks readers of fairy tales as simpletons.Lewis thought quite the opposite. He thought that fairy tales were the best way to convey truth for children and adults alike. He wrote about this quite often in his letters, and took no shame in reading fairy tales out loud in British pubs with his friend J.R.R. Tolkien, author of the epic "Lord of the Rings" trilogy.Nowhere is this more poignantly expressed than in his dedication to Lucy Barfield in "The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe." "You are already too old for fairy tales," he wrote to the young Lucy, "but some day you will be old enough to start reading fairy tales again." Hopefully that day will come soon for Ms. Behar as well.Mr. Flaherty is the president and co-founder of Walden Media, which publishes children's books and produces feature films based on classic children's literature, including C.S. Lewis's "Chronicles of Narnia" series.