Charles Dickens, 1838-1839
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
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
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
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:
'Dean't be afeard, mun,' he said; 'tak' eneaf to carry thee whoam.
Thee'lt pay me yan day, a' warrant.'
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
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