Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Fall Reading: Time Enough At Last

If you love to read, as I do, you probably understand how Henry Bemis felt.  There are so many books to pick up, so many characters to get to know, and there just isn't enough time to read everything you want.  If only we could stop the unrelenting hands of that damned clock, we could spend time with Shakespeare, Shelley, and Shaw.  

Well, I am currently on fall break, and I decided that I would take this time to do some of the reading that I have been meaning to get around to.  And this fall I've been working on filling in some of the largest gaps in my education.

Everybody has gaps in his or her reading, and I am no different.  You see, I've read quite a bit of Faulkner, Updike, and Nicholson Baker, and I've got Philip Roth just about covered.  (I haven't read all of Roth, though.  My paperback copy of Indignation is sitting in my briefcase right now, just waiting.  Really, I can't wait to get around to that. )

But then there's this thing called the nineteenth century.  I'm aware it existed.  And during those hundred-or-so years, there were lots of writers writing many interesting, um, books.  But unless their names are Edgar Allan Poe, there's a pretty good chance that I haven't read them.

So, to get on with it, here are some of the books I have read in the last week and some of the books I am looking forward to in the second half of fall break.

1. Hard Times by Charles Dickens

Now, don't get the wrong impression.  I didn't read Hard TImes this fall break; I merely finished it.  I started Hard Times weeks and weeks ago and only put it to rest it in a marathon reading session on Friday and Saturday because I was ashamed at how much time I had spent dawdling over it.  It took me eight weeks to finish this book.  In comparison, it only took me six weeks to read all of The Canterbury Tales in the original middle English.  And I enjoyed that!  This one took me nearly two months, and in that time I read every interesting article, short story, essay, and webpage I could pick up.  Anything just to keep me from getting back to this infernal book!

Charles Dickens and I just don't agree.  I don't want to get into the faults I find with Dickens, because I can recognize him as a genius and there are millions of very intelligent devotees all around the world who could explain to me at length about what I am missing.  (My roommate at Yale, who runs a very erudite wesbite of which I am a big fan, would be the first in line.)  There's no way I want to pick a fight I know I can't win.  So allow me to say that we just don't get along.

I am sure I will approach Mr. Dickens again sometime in the next few years, but for now I am giving him a little rest.

2. Narrative of the life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave by Frederick Douglass

Well, it was about time that I read this book, as I begin teaching it to my juniors on the day we return for the second quarter.  I ordered a shipment of 120 copies at the start of the year, and had planned to pass them out to the students when the returned from the break.  

I knew I had read some of Douglass before, when I was tutoring a high school junior back in 2005.  It turned out to be chapter 10 of this book, his account of getting into a desperate physical fight with Mr. Covey, the infamous "nigger-breaker" who treats Douglass with incredible cruelty.  When I decided to order these books, it was largely based on my enjoyment of that selection.  I wagered that Douglass would not let me down, and he did not.

In short, I loved Douglass' Narrative, and desperately hope that my students will, too.  Douglass' most salient quality is his sheer determination to improve his life, and this is what most people remember from his writing.  I also admired his matter-of-factness; never does he complain, bewail his fate, or make excuses.  Douglass never waits for a just God to deliver him; he delivers himself, and he recounts the events of this delivery as if they were exactly what you would do if you were faced with the same difficulties.  

And another thing!  Frederick Douglass lived on Alliciana Street in Baltimore, less than two miles from where I lived in 1999-2000.  Who knew?

3. How to Read Literature Like a Professor by Thomas C. Foster

Ok, so this is obviously not a work of 19th-century literature, but it was a welcome distraction from the last week of my Hard Times marathon.  This book was a quick read and prompted me to jot down a lot of titles that lay in my literary blind spot.  So I have this book to thank for spurring me on this week's assignment.

I don't have many good things to say about it other than that.  Rather than being full of secrets and special insights, it basically told me to do things that I already knew.  Here are some of the suggestions you will find inside:

2. Know your classical myth.   Lots of stories have classical allusions.
3. Pay attention to characters' names.  They're often meaningful.
4. Christ figures.  Yeah.  Look out for them.

It's dismissive to reduce professor Foster's book down to four simple rules, but that's what I felt I was getting when I read it.  Also, he misquoted Henry James.  I read Daisy Miller mainly because of his insights, which were based on an incorrect quote.

4. "Daisy Miller" and The Turn of the Screw by Henry James

I had to read a lot of Henry James as an undergraduate at Rhodes, and I had a strong reaction against him.  It wasn't that I didn't like the stories, it's just that I didn't understand them.  Every day that I showed up for class to discuss the James we were to have read the night before, I always found that I had missed the point entirely.  (In fact, I remember being halfway through The Turn of the Screw and not realizing that it was a ghost story until  my professor offhandedly mentioned that it was!)

So I read "Daisy Miller," which was pleasant and enjoyable.  I did a little bit of research about it after I had finished it to see what exactly I had missed.  It turns out, to the best of my knowledge, that I didn't miss too much.  It's a lovely story that is well-told.

The Turn of the Screw gave me more to ponder, and I am glad I re-read it.  What a puzzle.  There is so much repressed perversion lurking under the surface that is just begging to be pulled out.  And those ghosts--are they real?  After finishing the James, I was happy to read Joyce Carol Oates's short story, "The Accursed Inhabitants of the House of Bly," a short story narrated from the ghosts' points-of-view, and find that Oates had the same suspicions of sexual impropriety as I did.  Those were some messed-up Victorians.

And that's what I have done so far!  I still have nearly half of my fall break ahead of me.  Tomorrow I plan to begin another sorely neglected author, Mark Twain.  I picked up his Life on the Mississippi.  But I also have Persuasion by Jane Austen, as well as a library-full of neglected nineteenth-century writers.  What should I read next?  What about you?  What are you reading?  


  1. Bleak House is my favorite Dickens, but there's actually a really good, recent BBC adaptation of it starring Gillian Anderson that you can watch on Netflix Streaming if you've had enough of him. Currently re-reading Pamela and Wordsworth's 1805 "Prelude," which I hate.

  2. I just finished "The Swan Thieves" which is modern but set in the 19th Century (mainly). Plus it's full of references to NYC, art, and museums that made me think frequently of our shared erudite friend. I think you would enjoy it. I also read "The Murder of Roger Ackroyd" by Christie for the first time this fall. Never read a Christie. I really liked. And while I agree with you on the Foster, I think it's great for high school students and should be mandatory in 9th grade. It would make 10-12 grade some much easier.

  3. As the keeper of an erudite blog I'm red-faced to admit I am currently reading The Invasion of the Body Snatchers by Jack Finney. It's very good, old-fashioned science fiction pulp.

    I did just read George Orwell's essay on Dickens which is excellent. He is a fan, but he's quite aware of Dicken's supposed faults. It's a highly readable essay and a good way to appear as though you've actually read Dickens. ;-)

    Hard Times is not his best work. It's a weekly. His monthlys are better. He has more room to be funny.

  4. I just started Freedom (Franzen). This summer, I finished The Magicians (Grossman) and Hellhound On His Trail. I thoroughly enjoyed both of them.

    Good plan mixing in a little non-fiction with your fiction fest. It's good to shake things up.

    Not enough time!

  5. Nice reading list Mr.Brames. However I do think Foster's book is a little too heavy for people who are just beginning their foray into literature. There is a very basic literature guide 'How to read literature' available for these readers. It is available at