8.27.2009

what i'm reading

It was clear that I must repair to our town next day, and in the first flow of my repentance it was equally clear that I must stay at Joe's. But, when I had secured my box-place in tomorrow's coach and had been down to Mr Pocket's and back, I was not by any means convinced on the last point, and began to invent reasons and make excuses for not putting up at the Blue Boar. I should be an inconvenience at Joe's; I was not expected, and my bed would not be ready; I should be too far from Miss Havisham's, and she was exacting and mightn't like it.

All the swindlers upon earth are nothing to the self-swindlers, and with such pretences did I cheat myself. Surely a curious thing. That I should innocently take a bad half-crown of somebody else's manufacture, is reasonable enough; but that I should knowingly reckon the spurious coin of my own make, as good money! An obliging stranger, under pretence of compactly folding up my bank-notes for security's sake, abstracts the notes and gives me nutshells; but what is his sleight of hand to mine, when I fold up my own nutshells and pass them on myself as notes!

Great Expectations, Charles Dickens, 1860-61

In my last "what i'm reading" post, I blogged about the novel Mister Pip, a very good book, and announced an impending Dickens mini-binge. Then there was a flood, and a dogwalker crisis, and the book sat on my desk unopened.

But I finally did begin Great Expectations, the brilliant novel by Charles Dickens that inspired Mister Pip, and I am devouring it. I've been trying to make time to read every day, to finish the book before our trip to New Mexico. On the long travel day back and forth from Santa Fe, I'm hoping to read Open Veins of Latin America by Edward Galeano, and A Mercy by Toni Morrison.

Great Expectations is a miracle of a novel. It is Dickens at his best, and his most accessible. I thought I was re-reading it, but it's possible I'm reading it for the first time. My mental imagery from the book are really all from the 1946 movie adaptation, featuring the young Alec Guinness is a supporting role. Rats scuttling through the wedding cake.

I'm not sure if I'll be able to read, other than school work, while in school; it's possible I'll only read when school is not in session. But if possible, I'd like to get to Dickens' Little Dorrit for the first time.

18 comments:

Amy said...

What a great quote about self-deception! Now I know I did read Great Expectations because we read it in 9th grade. I am sure that that paragraph was wasted on me, if I even tried to understand it. What do 14 year olds know about self-deception? Why do we assign these books to kids and make them seem therefore childish and not for adults?

I do not remember liking the book when I read it. I preferred David Copperfield and Tale of Two Cities. I have a feeling I was too young to appreciate it. I wish I had time now to go back and really read some of these classics. I know I should, instead of reading more current books. But so little time, so much to read....

Keep us posted on how you feel about Pip and all the others!

L-girl said...

I think great books can be (and are) appreciated on many different levels.

It's never wrong, IMO, to introduce young people to great literature. They can enjoy it on some levels, and if we re-read books when we're older, we enjoy them on other levels.

I am absolutely loving Great Expectations. It is just brilliant.

It's occuring to me that a lot of it is about deception and self-deception - and about the impossibility of moral purity, as came up in another thread. This book is about so many things, and yet is so easy to read (as much as anything written in 1860 can be), and so engrossing.

God I love Dickens.

If you do want to re-read classics, then you can make the time. Maybe intersperse 1 older novel for every 3 or 4 contemporary novel you read.

Amy said...

Good idea---one old for every three newer book.

I agree that we should introduce children to great literature. Otherwise, how will they learn to appreciate it? Maybe the teacher I had just did not do a good job at conveying what was valuable about the book. I think I just read it for the plot and was not (at that age) able to get why this old lady was living in cobwebs and dust. I am sure today I would have a different perspective.

I am not sure why David Copperfield and Tale of Two Cities appealed more to my younger self. I read DC on my own, not for school, and just immediately fell in love with David. From that first line...."I am born" or something to that effect. And Tale of Two Cities intrigued me because of the history and politics in it (I was in high school when I read it.)

But Pip and Miss Havisham deserve a second shot. Perhaps it will be the book I read after the Triangle book, which is on the list after I finish the silly mystery I am now reading.

Enjoy!

johngoldfine said...

I'm not sure I agree about introducing children to literature.

The flip side of an introduction often is a lifelong loathing for something that was first presented as an easter-egg hunt for symbols, motifs, themes, compares-&-contrasts, and so on: all the drivel and trivia that high school or junior high teachers think is necessary to 'understand' a book. The book becomes a mere excuse for a string of boring essays, pop quizes, and blue books.

It works for the bookish, not for the masses.

I think literature is something the reader finds or not, like irony or love. We hope for the best for them....

I don't mean to pick an argument, amy, l-girl--but this is my trade, and I've been at it since 1973, and on balance, I'd rather have one of my students reading dreck they enjoy than some writing they hate that I think is good for them.

johngoldfine said...

But I do like the GE quotation!

johngoldfine said...

I do realize the teacher is supposed to help the student like the initially or apparently unlikable! That that's part of our pay! But for those of us who aren't quite as charismatic as Robin Williams in 'Dead Poet Society,' we have to consider whether we think force-feeding is a good thing to do.

Amy said...

I am not sure we are that far apart, John. I do think kids should be introduced to great literature, but like you, I think schools often do counterproductive things, as you suggest. I loved reading from the first day I could decode words and always enjoyed the books I read on my own much more than the books that were assigned in school.

When I got to college, I finally had professors who knew how to teach literature and stimulate reading and talking about books in a whole new way. For example, my high school teacher taught Moby Dick chapter by chapter with us summarizing each chapter and learning vocabulary words. No discussion of themes, symbols, characters. I reread it in college with a wonderful prof whose teaching opened my eyes, and I fell in love with the book, same book I hated in high school.

So how do we introduce kids to great literature? Have them read it on their own? Find better teachers? Let them watch a movie version and get inspired to read the book? I have no answers. I would hate to see schools cut the classics from the curriculum, but I wish there were ways that they did not destroy the books when teaching them.

L-girl said...

John, I also have no argument with what you're saying, either. If you look at Amy's original question, it's about something different.

"Why do we assign these books to kids and make them seem therefore childish and not for adults?"

I was expressing my belief that great books work on many different levels for many different types of readers. When I was a kid, I read wonderful books classified as YA. When I was older discovered they were simply great books, often with a young central character.

That literature shouldn't be dispensed as bad medicine is a given for me. People should be encouraged to read, period.

I've written a few books for struggling readers (something I enjoyed very much and would have done more of if it was valued more in the publishing world). The idea was to help people who have a hard time reading enjoy reading. And believe me, I wouldn't force Dickens on any of them.

L-girl said...

It's never wrong, IMO, to introduce young people to great literature.

Note key word: introduce.

I was introduced to playing sports as a young person. I hated sports and was incredibly non-athletic. But no one thought it wrong to introduce me to sports.

Same goes for literature.

I dislike the distinction between the bookish and "the masses". Many of those masses will love literature if introduced to it, without Robin Williams. But they'll never know if they're not introduced.

It doesn't have to be something dense and byzantine (to a 21st Century teen) as Dickens. It could be Steinbeck, or Toni Morrison, or Russell Banks.

johngoldfine said...

I had a lot of fun at Job Corps with Russell Banks' 'Trailer Park.' I'd read some of those stories aloud on Friday afternoons when things were winding down. Many of the corpsmembers hadn't known that characters, much less writers, much less teachers, were allowed to swear.

I knew the distinction between the bookish and the masses would not appeal but for a quick and dirty post...I thought I'd save my educational philosophy in all its glory for another day. I've worked all my life in places like Job Corps, at-risk high school programs, and community colleges and like the students (the masses?) immensely.

Joe Grav said...

hey hey hey, something cultural we TOTALLY agree on!

I LOVE Great Expectations. I don't think it would be possible to express my love for Great Expectations in blog-post-comment format. Boundless love. I also read it in 9th grade, and it move me and shook me and stuck with me like no other book I've ever read (although Tale of Two Cities was close!).

johngoldfine said...

'Masses' was shorthand.

My objection to teaching or even introducing literature (as opposed to exposing students to it) is that literature is used as a shibboleth to separate the favored students from everyone else. No wonder people hate it when it has been used as a marker to denigrate them--if you don't love 'Mill on the Floss,' you're a failure.

Our birthright as art-loving creatures, creatures who love a tale, has been largely hijacked by teachers whose essential role is assigning unrefusable slots along the class continuum--and I don't mean school 'class' either.

Amy said...

Looking back on my original comment, as Laura pointed out, I am not sure even I agree with what I said! What I meant was that I was turned off to some books assigned by school as required reading first by bad teaching and then by the association of that bad teaching with the feeling that if school assigned it, it wasn't going to be fun. Great Expectations and Moby Dick are two examples. The word "childish" was probably not the correct description of how the way schools taught these books books made me feel about them; perhaps "medicinal" would be a better word?

L-girl said...

Joe, very cool!!

L-girl said...

I've worked all my life in places like Job Corps, at-risk high school programs, and community colleges and like the students (the masses?) immensely.

I know you do. I didn't think you meant it disparagingly.

My comment re masses meant that many people who are not conventionally educated or highly literate can still love experience deep joy and satisfaction from reading. As I'm very sure you know.

My only teaching experience - extremely brief compared to yours - was with inner-city teens and young adults who had already dropped out / been pushed out of conventional school.

We would never have taught them Great Expectations in standard reading format, but when the right books were chosen, the results could be brilliant.

L-girl said...

My objection to teaching or even introducing literature (as opposed to exposing students to it)

I see that I was using "introducing" as you are using "exposing".

is that literature is used as a shibboleth to separate the favored students from everyone else.

Yes, that is brutal, and wrong.

On the other hand, I would hate for assumptions to be made in advance about what this group of young people - labelled at-risk, or whatever is the current expression - can and will enjoy. "These kids can't make use of this stuff, this is a waste for them, why bother."

if you don't love 'Mill on the Floss,' you're a failure.

Geez, that would be 99% of people alive now, I would think. Books have to be chosen wisely. It's not like everything called "great literature" is the same.

The word "childish" was probably not the correct description of how the way schools taught these books books made me feel about them; perhaps "medicinal" would be a better word?

That's awful, too. I imagine a lot of that is down to high school teachers simply unequal to the job of teaching such books - and not necessarily because they're not good teachers. It may be really, really difficult to do well.

Amy said...

I am sure it is much, much harder than I think. As I have mentioned, I would have loved to have taught literature to high school or college students, but I am sure I would have found it far different than what I fantasize it being like. I have the luxury of teaching law students---who are older and motivated to learn for professional reasons. Most high school students and even college students do not have that same maturity or motivation.

L-girl said...

Link from Amy: The Future of Reading