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No book is really worth reading at the age of ten which is not equally – and often far more – worth reading at the age of fifty and beyond. -C.S. Lewis

I am confused of the grammar of this quote. Firstly, the position of 'which' is confusing, it is not clear whether it is referring to 'No book' or 'age of ten'.

Secondly, I cannot get my head around the subject of '...which is not equally...', is the author saying 'No book is not equally worth reading at the age of fifty ...'?

Thanks all

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4 Answers 4

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The essence of C. S. Lewis's quote is "If any book is worth reading when you are 10, then that book is also worth reading (and sometimes even more worth reading) when you are 50 or older."

(To give context, this seems to be a response to the criticism that his "Chronicles of Narnia" series of books were "only children's books.")

No book is

{really worth reading (adjectival complement)

at the age of ten (adverbial phrase modifying “really worth reading”)} adjectival complement of “no book is”

{which is not equally worth reading at the age of fifty and beyond.} Relative clause modifying all of No book is really worth reading at the age of ten

– and often far more – Parenthetical emphatic.

The corollary of this negative argument is the positive:

Any book that is worth reading at the age of 10 is also worth reading at 50-plus.

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    The relative clause couldn't possibly modify all of No book is really worth reading at the age of ten - that would leave us understanding '[The fact that no book is really worth reading at the age of ten] is not equally worth reading at the age of fifty and beyond'. It's clearly a modifier in the noun phrase headed by book - it's just been post-posed (moved to the end of the main clause).
    – DW256
    Commented Dec 20, 2021 at 1:05
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    Agree with DW256. The relative clause should modify "book". So the subject "book" has two modifiers: "worth reading at 10" (A) and "not equally worth reading at 50" (B). So simplified, it is "No book is A and B". Here, "no" is a determiner for "book", just like "Some books are A and B".
    – justhalf
    Commented Dec 20, 2021 at 7:41
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    I disliked the Narnia books at age 10, and dislike them even more now, 60 years later. Too much God stuff. Likewise his 'Space Trilogy' (Out of the Silent Planet, Perelandra/Voyage to Venus, That Hideous Strength), which I read at age 11. Commented Dec 20, 2021 at 14:37
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Start with the quote.

No book is really worth reading at the age of ten which is not equally – and often far more – worth reading at the age of fifty and beyond.

Remove the elaboration between the em dashes.

No book is really worth reading at the age of ten which is not equally worth reading at the age of fifty and beyond.

Remove the elaborative propositional phrases.

No book is really worth reading which is not equally worth reading.

And there you have it. You've arrived at a sentence that makes little sense due to insufficient information. So you can assume that the specifier "which" relies on the elaboration offered by the prepositional phrases. No book is worth reading at the age of ten which is not equally worth reading at the age of fifty. Or, in other words, every book worth reading at the age of ten is also worth reading at the age of fifty.

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    Also Lewis is saying that the converse is true. If a book is not worth reading at the age of fifty then it is not worth reading at the age of ten. I can see what he means but I don't entirely agree with him. Also how does one know at the age of ten that a given book will be worth reading forty years later?
    – BoldBen
    Commented Dec 18, 2021 at 23:06
  • Thank you for your answer. Can you clarify a bit more as to why Lewis used a double negative statement and how this type of statement works grammatically? Commented Dec 19, 2021 at 1:04
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    I can comment on why the usage works grammatically but not on why Lewis uses it. Lewis is a creative writer. You'll find when reading works of fiction and other works by authors of fiction that they tend to bend or break the rules of grammar. The reason is usually to fit the author's or the work's style. And to be honest, the main justification for correctness (even if technically incorrect) is that the meaning is clear. Breaking rules of grammar only ever becomes a problem where it compromises the message the writing is meant to communicate.
    – R Mac
    Commented Dec 19, 2021 at 4:18
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    @BoldBen Someone aged 10 won't know, but someone aged 50+ would be in a good position to make recommendations.
    – TripeHound
    Commented Dec 19, 2021 at 6:43
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    @TylerW, just worked it out! The nots do make a difference. As a set, all the books not worth reading when you’re 50 sit within the set of books not worth reading when you’re 10 (just when you’re 10, there are a few more books not worth reading yet). In my mental Venn diagram, I should have been looking at the "background" (the "not" sets).
    – Pam
    Commented Dec 19, 2021 at 17:49
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No book is really worth reading at the age of ten which is not equally – and often far more – worth reading at the age of fifty and beyond. -C.S. Lewis

Take out modifiers really and equally, and supplement and often far more, move the relative clause which is... to right behind the noun it is modifying book, and we get:

[No book which is not worth reading at the age of fify and beyond] is worth reading at the age of ten.

Take out no and not as well since they cancel out,

[Books which are worth reading at the age of fify and beyond] are worth reading at the age of ten.

Switch the VPs of the relative and main clauses, and we are back to something very close to the original meaning, and have gotten rid of the the post-posed relative clause.

[Books which are worth reading at the age of ten] are worth reading at the age of fifty and beyond.

Add the modifiers and supplement back in,

[Books which are really worth reading at the age of ten] are equally - and often far more - worth reading at the age of fifty and beyond.

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If you replace the which by "if it" it becomes more straightforward:

No book is really worth reading at the age of ten if it is not equally worth reading at the age of fifty and beyond.

You could also move around the clause introduced by which, right behind the antecedent of which, book:

No book, which is not equally – and often far more – worth reading at the age of fifty and beyond, is really worth reading at the age of ten. -C.S. Lewis

And to make even simpler, strip it to the bare minimum removing unnecessary details adverbs etc., we obtain:

No book which is worth reading at the age of fifty and beyond, is worth reading at the age of ten. -C.S. Lewis

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    Disagree - this changes the meaning to suggest it is not worth reading it at age 10 unless you are going to read it at 50. See DW256's answer for the correct interpretation
    – Dragonel
    Commented Dec 19, 2021 at 16:19
  • The purpose was to explain the grammar, in particular to what antecedent "which" was referring to and I think it is made clear by changing the sentence the way I did. If you want to stick to the meaning, we can replace if by the mathematical "if and only if" but I think most readers would not get it. Lastly, DW256 is "a" correct answer, electing it as "the" correct answer is plainly incorrect as there are surely a few other good ones.
    – Iqigai
    Commented Dec 24, 2021 at 19:40

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