Monday, August 02, 2004


Bleak House and Book Guilt

I have decided not to finish Charles Dickens' Bleak House, even though I only have 200 of 700 pages left to go. I've simply lost interest, and there are too many other books knocking at my door.

It's not that the book is terrible, but it's not great either. I think the tipping point for me was when Esther received a treacly proposal from her guardian Mr. Jarndyce. I should have seen it coming, I know, but I thought Dickens might do better. My threshold for reading Victorian novels is relatively high, I suppose, yet there is only so much one can take of the cult of domesticity before you start to taste the poison in the Kool-Aid. At one point, Esther actually kisses her housekeeping keys. That was another point in favor of giving up on the book. The final blow came when I flipped back to read the "Introduction" to my edition, by Doreen Roberts, and found it more interesting than the book itself. "That's it," I told myself last night. "Move on."

This morning, though, I feel the spiky pangs of "book guilt," the iron maiden of graduate students everywhere. It is hard for me to have unfinished books on the shelf--they seem to grow an eye for every hundred pages left unturned, eyes which turn and follow me like paintings in a haunted house. I have an answer ready for my "book guilt" whenever it rears its ugly head: "Life is too short, and there are too many books, to spend another minute on a book that doesn't interest you." But my "book guilt" has an answer ready in return: "How do you know that the book is bad when you haven't finished it? Didn't Aristotle say that a life cannot be judged good or bad until its owner is on a deathbed? Don't characters deserve the same longsuffering at least until their epitaph, 'The End'?"

I'm also hounded by my feeling that books are to be a final refuge from the idea that language and art are, like so much else, primarily for consumption, that you should eat until you're full, snack when you want, graze here and there, click the link, change the channel, skip those pages, skim the headline ... close the book? Reading seems to serve a higher purpose, to play a role in my personal development. Shouldn't I grit my teeth and entertain the possibility that the difficult books are actually the ones I most need to finish? I guess that anything good for you can become a breeding ground for regret.

I think I know how to predict when to expect "book guilt"--it's when my reasons for reading the book were unclear in the first place, when my motives were a mixture of work and recreation. It's not that I mind reading books because I "have to"--I'm in the fortunate position of enjoying what I do for work (reading, writing, thinking, teaching), but work is still work even when you enjoy it. The problem is not when a book is clearly defined as a "work" book: it's when a book presents itself to me as both a "work" book and not a "work" book, or when it presses itself upon me out of a vague sense that "this is something I should read." I can see that Bleak House was one of these books: I picked it up partly for "work," since someone had recommended to me that Dickens' portrayal of Mrs. Jellyby's "Telescopic Philanthropy" might be related to my research. It was, and I'm glad I read those portions of the book. But what did this mean for the book's fate when Mrs. Jellyby promptly disappeared midway through the plot? What was left to propel me forward, other than the voices in my head that variously whispered, "This is great literature. This is historically important. This is an unfinished book." I can handle these voices so long as they are joined by other musings: "This is beautiful. This is right. This is illuminating." With Bleak House, as it turns out, there was only obligation and no sense of satisfaction.

This has happened with other books, who now glare at me from darkened corners of my shelves: Don Quixote, Les Miserables (I've tried twice but the chapter on Waterloo has always proven to be mine), The Sound and the Fury. The death knell of a book is when you notice how many pages you have left. The proof that a book is worth finishing is that you are hardly aware that the end is approaching; indeed, you are aware that the book might never end since it will warrant second readings and will impinge itself on your mind long after the final page (e.g., The Power and the Glory, Invisible Man). Bleak House simply wasn't one of those novels; maybe the next one will be.

(Incidentally, Julie at No Fancy Name says today that she's making a fresh attempt to "get through" Middlemarch and confesses, three chapters in, that she's already bored. I think I know how she feels--has "book guilt" struck again? But she also admits that she has "ulterior motives" for taking on Eliot again; stay tuned, she says, for more details.)

UPDATE: Julie's reasons for reading Middlemarch now available.

Collective Improvisation:
I'll trade you Bleak House for Middlemarch. :)

Posted by Blogger JM on 8/02/2004 02:45:00 PM : Permalink  

Such a pity you took on Bleak House as a "work book." It is one of my great favorites, probably a desert island book. It is to my way of thinking Dickens' best black absurd comedy. The lines between comedy and drama often cross, the best "moralizing" is done with his comedic characters (of which Mrs Jellybee is a delicious example) and the humor is not only verbal but marvelously physical. I weep with laughter each time I read of Mr Smallwood, who has to be plumped up like a pillow. He's the direct ancestor of a huge swath of British humor from the 1960s onwards.

I especially enjoy the mystery/detective yarn. Has many features and a certain flavor in common with Wilkie Collins, who is a great favorite of mine.

I also find the pathos of the 'heirs' to be quite moving. Far more so than the plight of many of the downtrodden but plucky who populate so many of the other Dickens classics. And the tale of the truly downtrodden, the crossing sweeper, is moving and painfully sad, not Dickens on his morally castigating high-horse.

It's true that Esther is the treacle that spoils the savory. But if you regard her as just the author's device to provide expository sections that give you some of the background and connectors and that position pieces of the plot by moving some forward and shifting some with misdirection or confusion, then you come to forgive Dickens (if not Esther herself, who is quite unforgivable).

Just a suggestion -- so you don't treat it as a work book but rather an "entertainment" in Greene's idiom, don't keep it on your bedside table where it glares at you in its unfinished state. After a while, turn it into a reading-aloud treat with a friend or two, with a decent glass of wine by your side.


Posted by Blogger nadezhda on 8/05/2004 01:20:00 AM : Permalink  

Thanks for balancing out my pretty negative comments with an appreciation of the book. I didn't mean to make it sound as bleak as I did! Perhaps after sufficient time has elapsed I'll be able to look at it with fresh eyes and take your advice. Thanks for coming by!

Posted by Blogger Caleb McDaniel on 8/05/2004 04:17:00 PM : Permalink  

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