Wednesday, February 10, 2010

What the Dickens are you reading?

So today I am starting my "What are you reading?" project in earnest. Two people are reading Charles Dickens: Sarah is reading Oliver Twist and Ron is reading Pickwick Papers. I am hoping they will come here eventually and comment on why they are reading these particular books at this particular time, but for now I will just riff a little on all this.

First off, I will probably do informal research on the authors and books in that wonderful place we tell students not to use in their research papers: Wikipedia. I love Wikipedia as a first place to look for info, because it gathers it all up in a lively way. For real research, Iwould follow it all up in other sources, but for this blog...well, we'll see. I'd like to think of the book itself and the people who are reading it as my main sources. I want to know what you are reading, and why.

Secondly, I want to write about what people are reading as hard copy, in print sources, to track how that's going. I love all the info available on the Internet and I read both print and online literary journals, newspapers, magazine articles, etc., and links people send me. But I work in a bookstore, and I like to see what people want to hold in their hands to read! What they want to keep forever, or bring back and trade in, etc. I am interested in the state of reading, in a general way, to better understand those scary statistics about the decline of reading, and in the specific way of who is still reading hard copy/print media, and why. And, more specifically, books, hardcover or softcover.

Thirdly, I work in a used bookstore. I love books, and I buy some new, at the big bookstores, and at when I have a coupon and/or a desperate need. Otherwise, I buy my books cheap, used, where I work, with my employee discount of 20%. (Yesterday I bought Unless by Carol Shields, paperback, and Letters to a Fiction Writer, edited by Frederick Busch, hardcover, first edition, first printing. I am a book addict.) (I have read Busch's introduction so far, about a crappy rejection letter he got, and about more generous letters since, and the first letter, by Lee K. Abbott to his son, who also wants to be a writer. The thrilling thing there is that Abbott tells his son what I have heard from other writers, too: you have to go deep, and tell them everything you think, feel, and know about life. Permission to tell!)

On the one hand, I am troubled by this (buying used, not the book addict thing; I accept my book addiction): the author is not getting a royalty. On the other hand, I know authors want to be read. Many authors are generous and want their books to be passed from hand to hand, resold so the less affluent can afford to read/keep a book, donated to the library book sale, so both the reader and the library benefit, etc. A used bookstore is also a form of recycling. (And, literally, a too-damaged book is one we do recycle locally; for hardcovers, we remove the cover and recycle the textblock. And then I look for an artistic use of the hardcover, as well.) So there are my confessions, disclosures, hopes.

Pickwick Papers was, according to Wikipedia, Dickens's first complete novel. I don't think I've read it. Dickens is the guy who often composed/published his work serially, with readers waiting eagerly for the next installment. I miss that! But Harper's Magazine serialized Happyland by J. Robert Lennon a short while back. (He has a website, a literary blog, etc. You can start here to learn more about him: (Oops, straying wildly from the hard copy/print media focus already, but, hey Harper's a a print magazine, and that's where I read Happyland.) I have read other Dickens novels, and recently watched Little Dorrit on PBS, online. (Ditto. Sigh.) Anyway, my life has been entwined with Dickens. I have fond memories of sitting in the theatre for the marathon performance of Nicholas Nickleby in Chicago and having muffins thrown at me! I read David Copperfield in my teens, and likewise Oliver Twist.

My first experience of Oliver Twist, however, was Oliver, the musical. The film. I was young enough to have been shocked by the darkness in it, that a character we come to know and love actually dies. Even though it was a musical, not everything worked out. And Fagin in the book is much darker than he is in the musical, or than he is, of course, in the Disney adaption, Oliver and Company, which I viewed with my children. The character Fagin was based on a real man named Fagin. It's no surprise that Dickens based many characters on people he'd seen, known, worked with, or was related to in life.

Dickens is one of those writers who delves deep into family--exploring good relationships, troubled ones, various kinds of love and loyalty. By coincidence--or is it synchronicity?--I am reading the essay "Family" in The Death of Adam right now. And here's something I want to mention about my little "What are you reading?" project. I have noticed that I read just the right thing at just the right time, which is coincidental, not supernatural, but everything else I read/notice at the time connects. I think this is because I am attentive and see the connections, and because they are there. We read and write our shared human experience.

Sometimes I put a book down. Usually this is not the writer's fault. If I take up a book that someone has recommended to me, and I can't get into, it may be a matter of taste and preference, yes, and I may not take up that book again, but mostly likely, in my case, it is simply not the right time for me to be attentive to that particular book. Two close reader friends, with whom I am in a book group, have recommended to me A Prayer for Owen Meany, by John Irving, as one of their favorite books of all time. Three times I tried to read it. My husband, not as avid a reader as I am, read it before I did. But I did complete it last year, and, indeed, it is a wonderful book, a book that lives in me now, that taught me about the Vietnam War, and that spead my compassion wide and deepened my awe at the mystery of life.

So tell me what you are reading, and why. And let me know if you, too, experience that right-book-at-the-right-time phenomenon.


Kathleen said...

To follow up on the synchronicity of life, I just spoke to my mother on the phone, who has written a lovely poem about her mother's diary. At the end of the dairy year, she has lists, including a list of books read, and, at 14, at the top of the list is OLIVER TWIST!!

Sarah Lindenbaum said...

Hi Kathleen,

I just set up my blog for the purpose of responding to yours, so you'll find it spare.

I am reading Oliver Twist as assigned reading for a nineteenth-century British lit class which I am currently taking at the University of Illinois. However, I signed up for the lit class because my knowledge of the English canon is lacking in more areas than I care to admit and I wanted to fill in some gaps. In other words, Oliver Twist is assigned reading, but assigned reading I came to voluntarily!

My experience with Dickens prior to this semester's class came in the form of A Tale of Two Cities (which I read in high school a good seven or eight years ago and recall nothing of, except for the famous opening sentence and something about the Bastille) and A Christmas Carol and Great Expectations. I picked up the latter two titles for leisure reading. So far, I think I was most engaged with Great Expectations, which I began to read during the winter of 2009 before school picked up again and I had to set it aside. I even listened to Hugh Laurie read an abridged version, although I never got past the point at which Pip finds out who his benefactor is. (Shhh!) I hope to finish Great Expectations this summer, after certain graduation expectations come to unfold.

I am currently around Chapter 32 in Oliver Twist, and Oliver has just woken up in the care of the Maylies. I have no idea what's going to happen next! Will Oliver finally escape the clutches of Fagin and Bill Sikes? Will he ever be reunited with Mr. Brownlow? What is the significance of the gold piece, which the old nurse stole from Oliver's mother? I can't wait to find out!

I leave you with a beautiful illustration of Bill Sikes and his little white dog.,-From-$27charles-Dickens-A-Gossip-About-His-Life$27-C.1894.jpg

Sarah Lindenbaum said...

Hmm, a beautiful but sad illustration of Bill Sikes and his little white dog. Poor little white dog.

Karen said...

Unfortunatly, I'm not reading anything impressive at the moment. Since you asked though, I'm reading Lamb: The Gospel According to Biff. ;)

Kathleen said...

I love The Lamb! It's hilarious! And I learned a lot while laughing!