On the difference between liking a novel and reading it

To my great shame, two of my four children are not readers. Our oldest and our youngest would read anything anywhere, but the middle two read only what they have to when they have to.

bleak houseI tried and tried to find books they might find interesting, to no avail. Even when they liked a particular book, they still had no problem not reading them. “If you like it,” I would ask them pointedly, “why do I have to force you to read it?”

That’s a question I’ve been asking myself since I started reading Dickens’ “Bleak House,” my choice for the Classics Challenge 2016 category of a book that had a place in its title.

Really, I loved this book. It’s funny and sad and shocking and suspenseful and romantic and insightful and completely engaging. But I had no problem putting it aside for weeks at a time and I still can’t figure out why.

I started this 596-page book in January and finished on April 1. I’ve been delaying this post because I’ve been trying to understand my issue with the book. If I liked it so much, I asked myself pointedly, why did I have to force myself to read it?

I chose this book because I had read other reading blogs extolling its virtues, I had it on my shelf and I had heard stories from acquaintances who could not put it down once they started. And here I am, nearly three months after I started, trying to figure out what to write about it.

This will not be a “review” of “Bleak House.” Really, what’s the point of that? It has held readers enthralled for more than a century, and rightly so; it’s a great book. So let’s begin with a brief synopsis. There’s this lawsuit, Jarndyce vs. Jarndyce, that has languished in the courts for years and years and become the biggest joke of the British legal system. No one knows what it is about, what’s at stake, who will benefit from the decision or whether there will ever be a decision. But everyone in the novel—and there are LOTS of characters—will be affected by the outcome.

There’s one of the Jarndyces, who has two young cousins, Rick and Ada (who fall in love) and their nanny (for lack of a better word) Esther, who has a scandal in her past. There’s Lord and Lady Deadlock, a couple seemingly devoid of love, whose story plays out in a heartbreaking way. They have an attorney, the sinister Mr. Tulkinghorn, who has a great interest in Jandyce vs. Jarndyce, and in the Deadlock family name. And there’s young Jo, so poor he doesn’t even have an “e” on the end of his name, a street boy who is caught up in the drama and pays an awful price.  There are dozens more, all of whom come in and out and affect the story in various ways. Some—like Mr. Skimpole who never has enough money and Mr. Turveydrop who’s renowned for his deportment—are merely there to make points and to get us to laugh at the foibles of people. Others, like Lady Deadlock’s maid Hortense and Old Mr. Smallweed, to muck things up for the good guys.

This novel, though, unlike many Dickens novels, gives the bad guys some humanity. Though you can’t help but laugh at Lord Deadlock when he’s described like this: “When he has nothing else to do, he can always contemplate his own greatness. It is a considerable advantage to a man to have so inexhaustible a subject. After reading his letters, he leans back in his corner of the carriage, and generally reviews his importance to society.” Yet  you can’t help but feel his pain when his high morals lead to his destruction.(Come on, it’s Dickens, you have to know it was coming.)

In short, this novel has everything anyone would ever want in a novel. So why did it take nearly three months to read it? Although it was nearly 600 pages, it isn’t difficult to read. Dickens may seem daunting to some readers, but once you get going, it’s extremely easy to follow. (I must say the women’s friendships were off-putting, though: Did they really call each other “my darling” and weep bitterly when they were separated back then? I don’t know, but even if they did, it seems creepy.)

There are many reasons I could point to for my lengthy facetime with this novel: I write and edit for a living so the last thing I wanted to do when I got home was to read (but I read several other books in this same time, easily putting aside “Bleak House). I could say there was a lot going on, but there always is, and again, I read several other books. I could say I just wasn’t up to the challenge, and that is probably closer to the truth than anything else. Or maybe I just have to understand that it is the rare long novel that will keep me going from cover to cover. Dickens published the novel in 20 monthly installments from 1852-53, so maybe I was just trying to replicate the way his readers experienced it. Or maybe it’s just that old problem: Life gets in the way.

This book taught me many things: The law is still and always has been “a ass,” as Dickens wrote in “Oliver Twist,” people still behave the same way today as they did then, and that, though sometimes bad things happen to good people, in the end, the world is a pretty just place. (Which was helpful to see, as I watched the presidential primary season play itself out in a Dikensian way.)

I also learned you can like a novel, you can even be enthralled by it, but not be compelled to read it.

Looks like I owe my kids an apology.

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6 thoughts on “On the difference between liking a novel and reading it

  1. Pingback: Shelf Improvement

  2. Pingback: Classics Challenge gets mysterious – Shelf Improvement

  3. This is great. There are a few well-written books that take me longer to read than others. I’ve been reading “The Angel’s Game” by Carlos Ruiz Zafon for some time now. While good, I’m slogging through. Perhaps the time has to do with the depth of reader reflection that’s involved. I find myself ruminating on the main character’s maddening, yet intriguing, choices in “The Angel’s Game.” Stay on your kids. They will learn, like you, to start AND to finish.

    OH, and I love this line in your blog: “And there’s young Jo, so poor he doesn’t even have an “e” on the end of his name.”

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    1. Thanks, Wildemere Writer. It’s taken me a while, but I don’t feel as though I’ve failed if I don’t love a book (or movie or experience) as much as I’m told by others I should. I have read Zafon’s “Shadow of the Wind,” which is a book I recommend to everyone, and its sequel “The Prisoner of Heaven,” which I thought was too messy. I didn’t know about “The Angel’s Game,” which came between them. Looks like you just added a book to my reading list. Yay!

      Liked by 1 person

      1. I too enjoyed his “Shadow” book but did not read “The Prisoner of Heaven.” This second in the series has a weight to it, doom perhaps, that also may slow down my reading. But his turns of phrases and economy of words in some places are quite good.

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