Bookshop event and public intellectual: on Alister McGrath
Last week to Heffers bookshop in Cambridge to hear Alister McGrath speaking on CS Lewis. To judge from their questions and contributions, most of the audience were there out of a serious interest in CS Lewis. In contrast, my main reason for attending was to find out what McGrath himself was like.
McGrath has intrigued me ever since I wrote my first book, Writing Successful Textbooks (A&C Black). As a commissioning editor, I had quite often come across academics who felt that writing textbooks was not something that genuine intellectuals did.
What I found odd about that view was, first, that usually the people who made that argument were not evidently themselves first-rate intellectuals and, second, that they seemed not to have noticed the many good textbooks that had been written by people who unarguably were first-rate. Richard Feynman, for example. Or Ernst Gombrich.
Bookshop events can be disappointing – some authors are better at writing than speaking. McGrath was an exception. His talk was beautifully crafted, wonderfully fluent, and well judged. He explored a number of questions concerning his biography of Lewis – why is a biography needed, for example, why McGrath should write it, and what method he used.
He also dealt professionally with the questions and comments, engaging many members of the audience and taking care to answer questions directly.
Overall, the performance struck me as extremely courteous: McGrath had clearly worked hard on our behalf to provide a memorable evening.
I was intrigued to hear that, alongside the biography, McGrath wrote a second book, The intellectual world of CS Lewis (WileyBlackwell). He explained that he realised during the writing of the biography that a certain amount of academic work on CS Lewis needed to be done – but that he didn’t want to clog the biography with it: hence the second book.
So many academics would either have failed to realise that the scholarly material – on Lewis’s relationship to Oxford philosophers, for example – would appeal to the main readership of the biography or would have decided to put it anyway, regardless of their readers’ preferences.
McGrath’s various activities beyond his scholarship – his authorship of textbooks, his approach to biography, and his giving of talks – seem to me all of a piece: the work of someone keen to genuinely communicate – and to do so with real courtesy.
A by-product, for me, of this event was that I found myself much more interested in Lewis than I expected to be – not least because I happen to have interest in the Oxford philosophers that McGrath mentioned, with whom I’d not previously associated Lewis. I left the event with copies of both of McGrath’s Lewis books, both of which I have been enjoying reading since.