After my marathon reading session in Rarotonga, things slowed down a bit. We’ve been listening to audiobooks on the road and at night: David Sedaris, Thomas Pynchon, Bill Bryson, Carl Sagan. I started rereading the Oz books because they had all of them available for the ebook. My grandmother loved the Oz books when she was a child, and she introduced them to me. I remembered very little about them, but I remember that I liked them when I was young. Unless you have a nostalgic attachment to these books, you probably don’t need to read them as an adult. I enjoyed it, but these aren’t the kind of books that are written for children today. Children’s books today need to be accessible to children as well as keep the adults interested in order to sell well, but it wasn’t always that way. The Oz books are children’s books for children. And that’s OK.
After some light reading, I decided to start on a project that I have been postponing. A while back when I was studying for my MA exams, I was in a very rigorous study group with my friends Julie, Jim, and Liane. Studying for the first exam wasn’t easy, but it was manageable. There is not as much in the way of what is deemed “imperative” work from the earlier literary time periods as there is from the later, obviously. We all read pretty much all of the works from the early periods. When we got close to the Victorian period things started to break down. There was no way we could cover all of that in the time we had left. Our strategy was for each of us each week to read a book and summarize its major themes, characters, similarities to other works, etc. We would then share with the group our findings. Hopefully we would be able to write about what we had personally read, but just in case…
The second exam was so heinous that I made a deal with…I don’t know who, but I promised myself that if I passed the exam, I would go back and read all of the stuff that I should have. Since then, I have made no move to do so.
Everyone knows that I’m a Brit lit/World lit girl. It’s not that I haven’t read all of the “important” American writers, but until you get to postmodernism, I’m not really that interested in American lit. I also detest Victorian novels. Bleck. So I have a bit of a hole where some sort of literary knowledge should be.
Thus began my quest to read Middlemarch by George Eliot (who is a girl, not a boy, as I would let my students know). It takes a lot for me to begin a serialized novel. It takes even more for me to finish it. For me, reading a Victorian novel is like climbing a mountain. But I opened the ebook and jumped right in. Surprise. I couldn’t get enough of Middlemarch. I hated putting it down. I read that Virginia Woolf said that it was “one of the few English novels written for grown-up people,” and I think I have to agree with her, at least about Victorian novels. I liked Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights when I was in high school, but last time I read Jane Eyre, I found myself rooting for Bertha to break out of the attic and do away with Jane and Rochester. Middlemarch is different. I don’t think I would have liked it in high school. It is one of those novels that takes some life experience to really appreciate.
I am not a cry baby when it comes to literature. Off the top of my head, I can think of just a handful things that have made me cry: “The Rocket Man” chapter of The Illustrated Man, Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I’ve Seen the Promised Land” speech, Henry V’s“St. Crispin’s Day” speech, Dumbledore’s death. And then there was that awkward incident with The Lovely Bones where I burst out sobbing in front of Rachelle and I think she thought I was dying.
So imagine my surprise when both of the novels that I read in one week made me cry. The first was Middlemarch, the second was The House of Mirth which I decided to read next because Julie’s war cry going into the comprehensive exams was, “Remember Lily Bart!”
Lest you be deceived, The House of Mirth is not a comic novel. It’s title has to do with the “fools dwelling in the house of mirth” from the Bible which I’m also admittedly not that well versed in. Edith Wharton does such a masterful job of portraying subtle emotion and the feeling that a person gets when a hopeless situation gets a stranglehold on her, that at the end of the novel I found myself outwardly weeping with a very confused boyfriend at my side. The next morning he asked, “We’re you crying last night?” as if it was all probably a dream. I have to go back to reading David Sedaris.