A Meditation on Reading

Summers have always been a time to read and then read some more.It was during the summers of my youth, when days stretched ahead and time stood still, that I read endlessly and learned from books and the memorable characters who became real people to me.

OVAC-0151I well remember the summer when I first met and became smitten with Jane Austen and her world, a fascination I couldn’t explain at first. After all, her novels were drawn from her personal experience of middle and upper-middle class families in the South of England in the late 1700’s to the early 1800’s–not a lot in common with my life in the early 1970’s. Yet her material–human nature–is essentially what drew me in and held me hostage, then and for all these years since, because human nature is timeless. A writer of exquisite comedy, Jane Austen’s observations are penetrating, incisive, and totally honest. Consider some of her richly comic characters whom I grew to know almost as well as my own family–the ridiculously pompous yet obsequious Mr. Collins who fawns over the arrogant, self-opinionated Lady Catherine de Bourgh, and the flighty, superficial Mrs. Bennett from Pride and Prejudice. I loved Emma Wodehouse and her matchmaking schemes, and the sensible and sensitive Elinor Dashwood from Sense and Sensibility. Jane Austen’s novels are deeply satisfying love stories where in the end everyone gets what he or she deserves. This too was appealing.

Lest you think I lived only in the 18th century, another world I inhabited was a full century later–that of Charles Dickens. It was Dickens who accompanied me through college. He wrote of London and the so called home counties, and of a class-ridden world of rich and very poor, where extraordinary coincidences made lives come full circle, where virtue was rewarded, but life certainly was not fair.  I loved Great Expectations, and I followed Pip’s growth through every pitfall. I felt he was my friend whose welfare and success I cared about as much as my own.  I feared for Pip when Magwich appeared on the bleak Essex coast. Joe, the aged parent, Estella and even Miss Havisham in her frozen-in-time world all became part of my inner world.

I loved Bleak House best of all, a condition-of-England commentary on society, a satire on the law; yet also a romance, a murderous melodrama, and an early detective story. My companion for a number of years was Esther Sommerson, the model for goodness and kindness. I was drawn into the world of the London courts of law, the seedy, mysterious Chancery, the never-ending court case of Jarndyce and Jarndyce. How much I learned about human nature and our propensity for revenge and cover-up. I also read and re-read Oliver Twist and learned from that universe of pickpockets and murderers, from the evil of Fagin and cruelty of Bill Sykes to the goodness of Mr. Brownlow. I learned that good can prevail over evil, but at a cost.

I encourage our students to read and to be transported to worlds they may never visit in real life. Reading taps into the imagination and gives a lens into other worlds and people, and surely promotes a habit of mind that involves a slowing down from our 21st century life, allowing one time just to be, to think, and to reflect.

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