Nicholas Nickleby
Charles Dickens, 1838-1839

Wuthering Heights
Bruce Punisher, 1847

If you had told me even as late as 1989 that I would end up majoring in English, I would have been pretty surprised. For while I'd always done fairly well on the writing side of things, and while I'd been an avid reader as a kid, when it came to getting much of anything out of actual literature for adults I was pretty hopeless. At the best of times I'd follow the story, but it wouldn't resonate with me at all — I'd come away with no new insights, no emotional response, no appreciation of the craft. And again, that was at the best of times. Far more often I'd look over the first couple of pages, see that my eyes had passed over the words without my brain processing them into anything — my experience of the book would literally be "I am sitting in a chair looking at ink marks on a page" — and I'd just give up. I could still pull off decent grades because I could parrot back what the teacher had said in a relatively sophisticated manner, but my record where the assigned books were concerned was that of an F student. I'd estimate that I read maybe 10% of what I was assigned in my last couple of years of high school English, and the 10% that I did read meant nothing to me.

Then I turned 16 and went off to college and tried some of those books again, and this time I just devoured them — the easier ones, I mean, like Huck Finn and The Bell Jar and Franny and Zooey. Others still didn't do much for me, but then I tried them a third time in grad school and found myself thinking, "Wait, this is great! Why didn't I realize...?": The Great Gatsby, Invisible Man, a few others. And much the same has been true when I've gone back and rewatched some of the movies I first saw in the '90s: I haven't necessarily liked them more — more often the opposite is the case — but I've felt like I've been getting them on a level that I didn't the first time around. So when I was browsing next semester's offerings for classes to audit, one of the listings that caught my eye was a class on the Victorian novel. The student reviews were ecstatic, and it seemed like a great excuse to read half a dozen canonical works I'd never tried before. But since I couldn't set aside several hours every day to read the books I figured I'd better get a head start.

Speaking of head starts, I've been an SAT tutor off and on since I graduated from college, and have enough of a comfort level with the test that these days I generally don't bother to prep out exercises ahead of time before going over them with students — there's nothing on the test that I don't know how to do (or, more importantly, how to teach). The biggest challenge is reading comp, since it's hard to answer questions about a passage you haven't read. Fortunately, the questions are written so that there's always one key word or phrase that gives the answer away — no synthesis of different pieces of information required — so going over an exercise means making sure the student is locating and grappling with the one relevant section. Meanwhile, I read the whole thing, because I can. The passages are written in a breezy enough style that I can generally zip through the whole thing while the student is working on the first little chunk, and then I don't have to worry about any surprises. To a great extent this is what the test is actually trying to measure: how quickly and effortlessly can you absorb this kind of material? For the vast majority of high school students, the answer is "not very," which leaves them with a couple of bad choices — read very quickly with minimal comprehension and get the questions wrong, or read very carefully and run out of time before getting to more than a couple of the questions — and the one good choice I mentioned above: read small chunks very carefully. Because you actually have to understand what you're reading if you want to get the questions right. "But you're not reading it very carefully!", some of the more observant students will occasionally protest. But in fact I am — I'm just doing it fast, because at some point after I graduated from high school I picked up the ability to follow prose like this without too much effort, which is how I came to enjoy the aforementioned works more than I had before. What I apparently did not pick up was the ability to follow Victorian prose in the same manner. I'd be sitting in a restaurant, flip one of these books open, try to read it, say, "Wait, what?", and then have to sit there and work out the meaning clause by clause and word by word the way I make my students do. And that's not my idea of fun.

Here's a sentence from page one of Nicholas Nickleby:

Some ill-conditioned persons who sneer at the life-matrimonial, may perhaps suggest, in this place, that the good couple would be better likened to two principals in a sparring match, who, when fortune is low and backers scarce, will chivalrously set to, for the mere pleasure of the buffeting; and in one respect indeed this comparison would hold good; for, as the adventurous pair of the Fives' Court will afterwards send round a hat, and trust to the bounty of the lookers-on for the means of regaling themselves, so Mr Godfrey Nickleby and his partner, the honeymoon being over, looked out wistfully into the world, relying in no inconsiderable degree upon chance for the improvement of their means.

Yes, I can translate haughty phrasings like "ill-conditioned persons" (= jerks) and "the life-matrimonial" (= marriage) and "in no inconsiderable degree" (= a lot). Yes, I can step around unnecessary appositives ("in this place") and splash through attempts at the ablative absolute ("the honeymoon being over"). Yes, I could look up what on earth "the Fives' Court" is (though I didn't bother). Yes, I can navigate my way around thirteen commas and two semicolons on the way to the end of a sentence in which nothing is even happening. But I don't want to. That's too much like work.

Wuthering Heights isn't quite so long-winded, but it still reads like this:

a capital fellow ... a jealous resolution ... my perseverance in soliciting the occupation of Thrushcross Grange ... Go to the Deuce! ... no sympathizing movement ... the whole establishment of domestics ... his pious ejaculation ... inspecting the penetralium ... tin cullenders ... stalwart limbs ... a decidedly shabby upper garment ... render my hilarity audible ... I ceased to be sensible of my locality ...

I've read prose like that before. It was in a story called "The Eye of Argon" by a guy named Jim Theis. Perhaps you've heard of it. Seriously, "ceased to be sensible of my locality"? So I guess he didn't hold on with the last ebb of his rapidly waning vitality, then? Sheesh.

And yet I might have struggled through even this. Here's what finally got me to officially give up:

Nicholas Nickleby:
'Dean't be afeard, mun,' he said; 'tak' eneaf to carry thee whoam. Thee'lt pay me yan day, a' warrant.'

Wuthering Heights:
The former, when he had deposited his burden, took a critical survey of the room; and, in cracked tones, grated out: "Aw woonder hagh yah can faishion tuh stand thear i' idleness un war, when all on 'em's goan aght! Bud yah're a nowt, and it's noa use talking—yah'll niver mend uh yer ill ways; bud, goa raight tuh t' divil, like yer mother afore ye!"

First of all, I cannot handle long passages of phonetic spelling. I don't read by sounding everything out in my head; I read by word recognition, and I don't recognize these words. Secondly, when I do sound out the words I'm left with dialogue in an accent I don't understand! The only British dialect I can understand without effort is BBC English; make me watch a movie set in Yorkshire and I have to turn on the subtitles. And if they look like this they don't help.

Thus I will not be auditing English 125B and will not be completing the rest of its syllabus. Because I'm not looking to work, but to play. So instead of these novels I will be reading a thousand pages about Ulysses Grant.

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