Bleak House has been languishing on my bookshelf for years, firmly established in the tl;dr pile. I’m pretty sure it’s even longer than the Game of Thrones books. It certainly took me longer to read. I decided to give it a try after I blazed through several books and wanted to slow down with a long one. That, and Dickens seems to be perfect Christmas-time reading. At some point when I was in high school, I read A Christmas Carol – or enough of it, at least, to pass a test on it. I liked it well enough. I also read Hard Times because a teacher I really respected recommended that I read it. When I was in college, I read exactly zero Dickens, which seems strange to me. The first book I read after I graduated with my English degree, though, was A Tale of Two Cities. Which I loved. I should read that one again, in fact. A couple of years ago, I tried reading Great Expectations, but I couldn’t get through it. And I think I tried David Copperfield at some point, also unsuccessfully. Last year, I reread Hard Times and thoroughly enjoyed it. Anyway.
I started reading Bleak House without really committing to it. It’s really long, and I thought it would be boring. It begins with a long explanation of a civil suit called Jarndyce and Jarndyce. Except it’s funny. I was hooked almost immediately. The plot is so long and complicated that I’ll just note the (early) highlights. There are two points-of-view: an omniscient third person and one from Esther Summerson in first person. Esther is a young orphan who lives with her very severe aunt until said aunt dies, and then she is taken by John Jarndyce, who refuses to be directly involved in said lawsuit, though it affects him. At the same time, he takes in two Jarndyce-related wards, Ada and Richard, who fall in love. We follow these characters and at least a couple dozen more through their lives, all somehow related to Jarndyce and Jarndyce. The title comes from John Jarndyce’s house, which is in no way bleak. We eventually find out where Esther came from, and every little thing is interconnected and resolved neatly by the end. Too neatly, I think, though I guess that’s what I should expect from Dickens.
I loved this book so much, which is especially surprising since I didn’t think I’d even make it through. I certainly didn’t think I’d enjoy every page. There weren’t even rough patches that bored me. My only problem with it is the end because perfectly tied-up endings annoy me. Bleak House made me want to reread A Tale of Two Cities and give David Copperfield another try. I don’t know why this one isn’t up there in popularity with the likes of A Christmas Carol and Great Expectations, except that it’s long as all hell. After reading so many long books this year, I’m amused that I avoided them so much in the past. But I’ll talk about that in my next post.
Also in my next post: the big reveal! Palmer and I have been repainting and otherwise upgrading the front room of our house, which fairly recently became my library. Here’s our grand beginning:
The cats played Kitteh Fort with my displaced books. Much fun was had by all.
Here’s the damage. I’m hoping most of them will be back on their shelves by the end of today.
In other, non-book-related news, OpenEmu, a video game emulator (okay, an emulator platform?), was released for mac. This thing is beautiful and super user-friendly. I’d even taken the trouble to compile it when it was still in beta. Now I can play so many of my favorite games – like Zelda: Link’s Awakening. I still had the game, but I didn’t have a Game Boy old enough to play the original games. Fun!
Now, to finish my library so I can read in it!
I read Hard Times for the first time when I was 15 because an English teacher I really respected recommend that I read it over the summer after my freshman year of high school. (She’s also responsible for my love of Don DeLillo and Margaret Atwood: she recommended White Noise and The Handmaid’s Tale, too.) I’d almost totally forgotten what Hard Times is about. All I remembered was that a school with a mean teacher was involved. I think I wanted to reread it precisely because I didn’t remember. And I love Dickens: A Tale of Two Cities is one of my favorite novels. (I tried reading Great Expectations, though, and didn’t even make it halfway.) In fact, that’s the first book I read after I graduated college the first time with an English degree. I decided that even though I had a piece of paper that said I had, I hadn’t read anything. So I picked up the nearest “respectable” book which happened to be A Tale of Two Cities. I don’t think I expected to like it at all – and I certainly didn’t expect to absolutely love it.
Anyway, back to Hard Times. It’s generally about utilitarianism and the old debate about nature versus nurture. Thomas Gradgrind, father of Louisa and Tom, believes that all that matters is fact. He piles his children’s heads full of facts at the expense of emotion and imagination. We follow Louisa and Tom from childhood to adulthood and see the consequences of their father’s decisions. Meanwhile, Stephen Blackpool is a working-class mill worker who is falsely accused of robbing a bank. We see what happens to him as Dickens explores class structure. The End.
That summary makes it seem like I liked Hard Times much less than I did. Maybe it’s because it’s been a few weeks since I read it, and things get fuzzy quickly. It wasn’t at all what I remembered. The school part was relatively short – I guess it was just the part that was most relevant to me at the time. I had totally forgotten about Stephen Blackpool and the bank.
So. Pick up a copy of Hard Times and read it. Not just because it’s Dickens and you should. Because it’s a really great novel and totally worth a read. And, for Dickens, it’s relatively short, which, I guess, isn’t saying much.
So. I read Crime and Punishment and liked it, though not as much as I thought I would when I was halfway through. At one point, I thought it might trump One Hundred Years of Solitude, but it didn’t. I’m not going to summarize it here because everyone is familiar with it. The funny thing is that I had no idea how it ends. I knew, going in, that Raskolnikov kills someone and then suffers because of it. I didn’t know that he, in fact, kills two people, though the second person, I guess, doesn’t really matter. (I felt better when neither Jacob nor Palmer knew about the second, either.)
My only problem with the novel is the end. I was disappointed that it ends relatively happily under the circumstances, that Raskolnikov sees the light, so to speak. It’s hopeful. I’d braced myself for a depressing, pessimistic ending, and I was disappointed because it wasn’t the life-changing end I’d expected. Crime and Punishment is, after all, considered one of the best novels ever written. My expectations, I guess, were too high.
This novel got me to thinking, though. The main reason I’d never read it is that I wasn’t assigned it in college. Granted, I don’t think I ever took a class that involved Russian lit of any sort, beyond a modern lit class in grad school, and even then it was Notes from Underground, which is very short. Professors don’t assign long novels anymore. I’ve heard many times things like “I assigned such-and-such, but I’d have assigned such-and-such instead because it’s better, but it’s sooooo long.” I think My Antonia, The Well of Loneliness, and Orlando might have been the longest novels I had to read in college, and they’re all significantly shorter than Crime and Punishment. And the same professor assigned all of those novels.
I often feel shorted in my English degree, though UNO had a really good English department back in the day. And I’m not sure I’d have read a long novel if I was assigned one, though I think I read all of those three. I don’t think I got all the way through Orlando, though I put in a good effort. It sucks that professors have become so cynical that they assume students won’t read long assignments. Not that students help, of course. I read my share of Cliff’s Notes.
As disappointed as I was in Crime and Punishment, (and, to tell the truth, I wasn’t all that disappointed) I can easily recognize that it’s a Great Novel and that anyone with a lit degree should have read it. I remember a professor assigning a short Dickens selection and claiming that a whole Dickens novel would be too much. I read A Tale of Two Cities right after I graduated and was angry that I hadn’t read it earlier. I have too many holes in my English degree, and I think it’s because professors are caving in to students’ laziness. I slipped through college with mostly As and didn’t do a quarter of the work I should have had to do to get them, and now I regret it. And I went to a good school. Sometimes I’m amazed that LSUS English graduates are even literate.