Read Better!

I admit, I have some sympathy with Hillary Kelly’s lament about the whole Oprah Does Dickens thing. I don’t share, or like, Kelly’s condescending assumption that Oprah’s readers are incapable of appreciating the novels, that they will have to “scramble about to decipher Dickens’s obscure dialectical styling and his long-lost euphemisms” or that “with no real guidance: they will only “mimic their high-school selves with calls of, ‘It’s too hard!’” People have been reading Dickens “with no real guidance” for a pretty long time and lots of them have had great fun with his language, his stories, and, yes, his ideas. Of course, I wouldn’t be in the profession I’m in if I didn’t think “real guidance” could enhance people’s reading experience, especially (though not exclusively) for books that don’t yield as easily as others to the kind of self-revelatory or just lazy reading-for-what’s-relatable that Kelly rightly proposes is one of the main purposes of Oprah’s book club. A case in point actually comes from the putatively ‘high culture’ end of the media spectrum, the New Yorker‘s Book Bench, which this week included in their Year in Reading series the following commentary on George Eliot’s Romola:

Absolutely no one reads “Romola” these days, at least not for fun, and I hate to admit that I can see why: it’s desperately wearying. The heroine is a hopeless prig, unredeemed by anything even slightly compromising in her character, and the villain’s villainy isn’t very interesting: he’s uniformly awful to his father, his wife, and his mistress. Eliot was utterly diligent about ensuring the book was historically accurate: her diaries report that, in preparation for writing, she gathered “particulars, first, about Lorenzo de’Medici’s death; secondly, about the possible retardation of Easter; third, about Corpus Christi Day; fourthly, about Savonarola’s preaching in the Quaresima of 1492.” But as one of Eliot’s early critics, Leslie Stephen, put it: “The question will intrude, What would have become of ‘Ivanhoe’ if Scott had bothered himself about the possible retardation of Easter?”

Actually, this complacently closed-minded and anti-intellectual reading is much more annoying to me than Oprah’s Dickens fest because of its pretense of erudition. Dickens was a great populist, after all; he wrote to reach the hearts of the masses, and there’s a certain logic in an alliance between him and the forces of O. The really annoying thing about Oprah’s announcement, to me, was her gleeful admission that she’d never read any Dickens before  and the sheep-like enthusiasm with which her millions of viewers will now rush out and do what the diva says. (But hey, what corner of the book world is free from fads? It seems just a short while ago nearly every bluidy reviewer and blogger and tweeter I follow was talking about the same book … and wait, so was Oprah!)  The hot cocoa stuff is silly, too, as if every Dickens novel is a cozy holiday classic. Oprah ought to put on a better display of informed reading. It’s not hard to do–and she could just staff it out without losing a day of her royal tour of Australia. But with her resources, she may in fact bring in some really interesting people to talk about Dickens. Maybe, just maybe, some of the issues raised in this old debate about Dickens’s racism will even come up, though I sort of doubt it, since it would undermine the feel-good ethos of both the show and the book choice. For me, the bottom line is, Great Expectations and Tale of Two Cities (though, as Kelly and others have rightly noted, oddly mismatched) are books that are worth reading, whether it’s your mom, your grade 10 teacher, me, or Oprah who motivates you to read them. (I did do a double-take when I got my first look at the Penguin cover, though; I was relieved to learn that the back cover reverses the disproportion. Also, I hope Oprah’s web editors will stop putting a random apostrophe after Dickens; I already get endless assignments in about “Dicken’s” and I don’t need any more confusions introduced…)

But, to come back to Romola, if you’re going to set yourself the excellent project of reading through all of George Eliot’s fiction, and learn enough about Romola to know that it was extensively researched, you might also work on the assumption that novels that don’t immediately gratify your taste may be revealing some of your own limits, not just theirs. Sometimes, you’re asking the wrong questions, for instance. Here’s where ‘real guidance’ might come in handy, at least in training you as a reader to stop and think about why the book is as it is, what purposes its aesthetic and formal choices serve, what ideas shape it. You might not like it any better, but you would understand a lot more about it. These comments give the impression of a reader who really didn’t try very hard–in fact, who did just what Kelly worries Oprah’s readers will do. And seriously: any novel with the line in it “children may be strangled, but deeds never” surely deserves our close attention. Some of my ideas about Romola are here, from when we covered it in my recent graduate seminar; these excellent posts from Bookphilia also show how very far from “desperately wearying” the novel can be to a good reader.

4 Comments to Read Better!

  1. December 18, 2010 at 12:04 am | Permalink

    The New Yorker writer agrees with Stephen that Ivanhoe is the gold standard of historical fiction? Please, no.

    I started the New Republic piece but quickly bailed out. The line about the uniquely difficult style of Dickens was too great a statement of ignorance. Not that I mind the standard – imagine the Oprah Winfrey Book Club editions of Sartor Resartus and The French Revolution!

  2. December 18, 2010 at 1:27 am | Permalink

    I almost can’t believe I wrote those posts on Romola; it’s hard to imagine having had the energy!

    But I agree that focusing on our limits as readers before assuming a book is devoid of meaning or worth is important; it makes me think I should give Memoirs of Hadrian another chance, having just about given it up for dead.

  3. December 18, 2010 at 4:45 am | Permalink

    Of course the idea that Dickens or any other classics author should be read only by those who have the ability to produce articles that might be published in academic journals is itself a very sad one to put forth-In his great work, The March of Literature Ford Madox Ford says it is exactly attitudes like that which kill the love of reading in college students-what ever else one might say, Oprah has done more than anyone else in the USA or world wide to encourage reading of quality books-

  4. December 19, 2010 at 11:05 pm | Permalink

    AR: On the book club discussion boards, there are quite a few comments about Dickens’s “Victorian” English. I admit, I wanted to jump in and start explaining that “Victorian” doesn’t begin to account for the idiosyncrasies of Dickens’s style. Nobody has trouble understanding Trollope’s sentences.

    Colleen: I admit, there are some books I don’t feel that obligation to, but there are plenty of cases in which authors have surely earned the benefit of the doubt!

    Mel u, to be fair I don’t think the claim was that Dickens should only be read by academics. But the claim that was made was pretty absurd. Oprah is certainly influential, but considered as a body, I think that English professors may do as much or more to encourage not just reading of “quality books” but also quality reading of books–which is not what I see Oprah doing, and I do think it matters how well we read what we read. Also, I have no idea what these numbers exactly represent, but I was browsing the discussion boards for the book club on her website, too, and noticed that there were thousands of postings about Eckhard Tolle and only two that I could see for Franzen’s Freedom. I can’t help but wonder, when Oprah “assigns” her followers a weighty tome, how many of them do more than buy it and try it. In any case, the discussion posts on Dickens so far show a mix of enthusiasm (much of it from English teachers, just btw) and profound confusion–without going to Kelly’s extreme, I can see the value of some better guidance than “look up SparkNotes.”

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Summer Reading 2014

Rohan:
1. Julie James, It Happened One Wedding
2. Dorothy Dunnett, King Hereafter
3. Miriam Toews, All My Puny Sorrows
4. Elizabeth George, Just One Evil Act
5. Dorothy Dunnett, Niccolo Rising
6. Elena Ferrante, Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay
7. Zoe Ferraris, Finding Nouf
8. Georgette Heyer, Friday's Child
9. Ellis Peters, A Morbid Taste for Bones
10. Charlotte Bronte, Villette
11. Sue Grafton, W is for Wasted
In progress: Tremain, Music and Silence

Maddie:
1. Judy Blume, Forever
2. Rob Thomas, Veronica Mars, an original mystery
3. John Green, Paper Towns
4. Judy Blume, Then Again Maybe I Won't
5. Sarah Dessen, Dreamland
In progress: Wilson, Diamond

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