Quickened by Dickens

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I feel like I’m a better person than I was two weeks ago. I’ve finished reading Great Expectations and to my surprise, I really enjoyed it. Understand: I have never had to read Charles Dickens. This unfortunate reality is likely due to skipping two years of high school (long story) and all the reading that went with it. In the years since my academic career played out its spotty history, the thought of reading Dickens has been intimidating. English majors read Dickens. Oh wait, I am an English major.

Notes from the margin:

social class, “great expectations” = ambition

human nature, identity

Also a question: does the nature of the giver, especially if he’s an escaped convict, detract from the value of a gift?

I think Magwitch is a really good name for a cat.

Watercolour of Abel Magwitch from Great Expect...

Watercolour of Abel Magwitch from Great Expectations by Charles Dickens (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

“You’re so smart. You’ve always been smarter than me,” said my sister with a little bit of awe when I told her I laughed out loud in parts. “I tried Dickens. I didn’t get it.” She was sad when she said this.

“Try him again,” I said. “He describes people as furniture, compares them to plants. Think of him as a 19th century Eddie Izzard.”

“I don’t know about that,” my sister said. “Would you like some cake?” We are Skyping and doing imitations from Game of Thrones.

My sister is modest. She has read Austen, I have not. (“You’ll like her, I promise!”) She’s next on my list. As with Dickens, I’m a little scared but hope to be surprised.

If this line isn’t so wonderfully English, I don’t know what is.

To Read, To Think; Perchance To Grow

Bedside Reading
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Mine was not an extraordinary childhood. It was in many ways idyllic: car trips in the summer to Wisconsin, the Statue of Liberty, Six Flags; weekend visits to small towns; the smell of bran, oats, and barn; pony and bike rides; apples in September and snow on Christmas Eve. It was a childhood I wanted to recreate for my own children; a reality reflected and fashioned by the conventions and happy endings I found in books.

But books have always surrounded me, forming a landscape both topographical and intellectual. They are portable keepsakes, one of few constants in my moves from country to country. One possession that has not lost its way is A Time For Old Magic, a collection of fairy tales compiled by Chicago educator and critic May Hill Arbuthnot. It sits in my father’s house, dusty but safe. Its permanence there is a source of comfort to someone who moves often.

My need to travel and live in different places reflects the explorations and visitations my mind makes when I read. Whenever I tell myself that studying the Great Books is “for fun” I undermine the value of reading – not as a hobby, but as vital to our growth as human beings.

By the end of last week, I had read Hamlet four times. Besides the fact that finals are in five weeks, close reading has revealed themes that go beyond most classroom interpretations. It’s been 400 years since Shakespeare wrote Hamlet. Society still debates over what’s right and wrong; the relative goodness of people; the flaws in even the best intentions, and the moral ambiguities that challenge our governments.

This week I’m rereading Chaucer and the Gawain-Poet. I’d stopped reading fairy tales for a long, long time. I know most of the happy endings by heart. Only now I’m seeing the darker themes beneath the stories of faerie enchantment and knights. I started thinking about compromises driven by gender, institutions like marriage and religion, and how tradition still shapes the thinking of even the most advanced cultures.

So I read and relearn how to think. Perchance to dream, but more importantly to grow.

The best smell ever

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A baby’s cheek, and coffee when you wake up on a Saturday morning. Fresh-mown grass in April. Lavender, warm laundry, rain, and the pages of a new book. New book smell!

The Amazon guy came to my door tonight – working late, how lucky for me! – and I finally got my hands on books I need for class. Having just finished an in-depth study of Sophoclean tragedy (Antigone was possibly the first emo kid in history) I was itching to start on The Next Thing. I decided to ditch Dante for when I’m feeling more confident, and followed my heart to Chaucer instead.

Until my iPad can duplicate the intoxicating scent of a book’s untouched, unread pages, I don’t think I’ll ever completely give up my dead tree darlings.