Tuesday, February 28, 2017

The Shortest Month

The shortest month – and some of the longest readings. I spent most of February thinking I had overstuffed this new ten-year plan and would never make it through it all. Looking back at the time now from July, I can see the problem: some of the first books on the schedule were surprisingly long, and I had three jobs at the time. But my goal is to have zero jobs sometime in just the next year or two, which should leave me plenty of time to pursue my weird OCD-driven geekdom. And anyway, with a little extra effort, I made it through February: three jobs and all. At this point, it feels like I have a viable plan and that I have a fine chance of once more getting through a decade-long reading list.

The enormous length of The History of Victorian Literature stunned me when I opened it (you can’t tell the size of a Kindle book just by looking at the cover). But every page was interesting and helpful, starting right from the introduction, which showed the liberal politics of even the most heart-warming domestic novel: to show that middle-class, working-class, and rural people had dignity, interesting problems, and interior lives came as a shock to the old guard, and the characters’ counterparts in the real world took advantage of new educational opportunities partly just so they could read all this new literature. I learned a lot about things I’d read alredy, and I got a great start on a list of books for a fourth decade of planned reading starting in 2027!

Much, much shorter was the Greek Epic Fragments from the Loeb Classical Library. I was hoping to enjoy an ancient account of the Trojan War leading up to the events in the Iliad. But I hadn’t realized just how fragmentary the fragments were. I’d read it all in Apollodorus anyway.

One of my three jobs happened once a week at a home-school co-op an hour away. Part of my method for getting through the reading I had assigned myself during this busy time was listening to books on the drive there and back, and my favorite during those busiest weeks was Charles Dickens’s third novel, Nicholas Nickleby. I can’t recommend highly enough Mil Nicholson’s readings of Dickens. A professional actress who donates her skills to Librivox, Ms. Nicholson reads it all with a proper British cadence and lots of love. She gives every character a distinct voice, and when she reads the lines, modulating her pitch, rhythm, and accent, the characters appear in my mind with bright colors and crisp edges, like the ghosts David Copperfield envisions as he writes his memoir. Wackford Squeers, Kate Nickleby, Sir Mulberry Hawk, Mr. and Mrs. Crummles, Smike, Mr. Mantalini, Newman Noggs, Peg Sliderskew – these and all the other unforgettable creations of the Great Novelist’s mind become three-dimensional, palpable, living humans under the care of this talented performer.

The History of Victorian Literature points out a problem with Nicholas that Dickens himself seems to acknowledge in his narration: the good people that fill the pages have such uniformly pure thoughts, only the villains can become truly interesting, novelistic characters. But Dickens figures it out soon enough in his career and gives us David and Pip and Bella Wilfer. In the meantime, Nicholas Nickleby offers adventure to thrill at, scoundrels to hiss at, and lots and lots of laughs. If you want to try one chapter of Dickens, read chapter 2, regarding the foundation of the United Metropolitan Improved Hot Muffin and Crumpet Baking and Punctual Delivery Company. Try not to laugh! Or if you want something shorter, read Fanny Squeers’s letter; Douglas McGrath, director of the 2002 screen adaptation, calls it one of the funniest pages in all literature. I may have packed too many pages into this short month, but when they’re as good as that page, the extra effort makes me very happy.

But above all this, Nicholas Nickleby inspires me. Dickens wrote at a time when a hero in a novel could be taken seriously. And a good thing it was; that era needed heroes. Not that Nicholas is some kind of Aristotelian ideal of character: his heroism comes from youthful impetuosity as much as it does from courage. But whatever the fillip of emotion or inclination, Nicholas’s heroism finds its foundation in knowledge – knowledge that public schools need to be cleansed of their ignorant, anti-educational masters, knowledge that riches do not give their possessor the right to assault women or to brag about it, knowledge that those privileged with health and strength have a duty to care for the poor, the feeble, the aged, and the sick.
Squeers caught the boy firmly in his grip; one desperate cut had fallen on his body—he was wincing from the lash and uttering a scream of pain—it was raised again, and again about to fall—when Nicholas Nickleby, suddenly starting up, cried ‘Stop!’ in a voice that made the rafters ring.

‘Who cried stop?’ said Squeers, turning savagely round.

‘I,’ said Nicholas, stepping forward. ‘This must not go on.’
Dickens’s era was not the only time in need of heroes like Nicholas Nickleby.

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