It’s still the holidays, and that means we all may find some time during the day to sit with a good book. Later in this post I will share with you links to two reading lists that should give you a lot to choose from if you are wondering what to pick up next. While I’m constantly searching for the next great read, here are some that have stayed with me through the years.
It was a long time ago, actually the summer of my 16th year, when I first met, and was forever smitten with Jane Austen and her world—a fascination I couldn’t at first explain. After all, her novels were drawn from her personal experience in a limited social milieu in the South of England in the late 1700s and early 1800s. Not a lot in common with me. But her material—human nature—drew me in and held me hostage, because human nature is timeless and ageless.
A writer of exquisite comedy, Jane Austen’s observations are penetrating 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 match-making schemes, and the sensible and sensitive Elinor Dashwood from Sense and Sensibility. Jane Austen’s novels are all deeply satisfying love stories, where in the end everyone gets what he or she deserves.
Lest you think I lived only in the 18th century, another world I discovered was a full century later, that of Charles Dickens, and 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 and every step. 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, and her frozen-in-time world view all became part of my inner world.
Bleak House was best of all, a condition-of-England commentary on society and 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 that world of mystery of the courts-of-law in London, of the slightly seedy, mysterious Chancery, the never ending court case of Jarndyce and Jarndyce, and all the intrigue that implied, and how much I learned about human nature, and our propensity for revenge and secrecy and cover up.
I also read and re-read Oliver Twist and learned from that universe of pick pockets and murderers, the full range of human experience 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 there is always a cost.
So I encourage all of us to read—to be transported to worlds we may never actually visit and encounter characters whom we may never meet in “real life.”
I encourage students especially to live in their imagination and to be drawn in (against their will if necessary) to another universe. Reading and immersing oneself in other worlds promotes a habit of mind that involves a slowing down from our 21st century life and allowing time just to be, time to think, and time to reflect.
Here are two links to help in your quest to find the next great read: