Saturday, January 14, 2017

Fiction | A Classic Approach to Reading

I've long talked about Book Riot's Read Harder Challenge that I began back in 2015 and have been picking away at ever since.

Well guys, it's official: I finally finished the 2015 Read Harder Challenge!

My last remaining category for the challenge was "a book published before 1850," and I actually debated several options for this over the course of my participation. Originally, I had wanted to read something American from pre-1850, because I'm already familiar with (and had read) many of the infamous British authors from this era; that would be the easy-out. As time passed, though, I just increasingly felt that sticking to American works was too limiting. ZERO of the options inspired me, and I had, simultaneously, been inspired to read a Dickens classic since I'd only ever read Oliver Twist and that was back in high school. Of the date-qualified options, I chose David Copperfield and, with it being a chunkster and all, saved it for my final Read Harder Challenge project.

David Copperfield, like Dickens' other works, was originally published as a serial over the course of 19 months from 1849 to 1850. Facing its intimidating 800+ pages, I decided to plot out my reading and put myself in the mindset of its original audience; each day, I read a single part, following its original publication schedule of three chapters at a time. This was a fabulous decision, as it made the book's language and heft (daunting to my middle-grade mindset) feel much more manageable.

Largely considered an almost autobiographical work, David Copperfield follows its eponymous main character from his orphaned boyhood to adulthood, through love and loss, happiness and heartbreak, alongside a slew of characters that impact his journey.

Beyond this quick introduction, I think it impossible to outline this book in a succinct paragraph with any certitude. That's not the end goal of the story, to be able to quickly summarize for a friend an enjoyable tale you encountered. What Dickens does with David Copperfield, instead, is create an immersive world in which one character, one man, exists and comes of age. This immersion is achieved in part by its first-person narrative, told from the perspective of an older Copperfield. And it's not even told, as so common, as a reflection but more of a simple retelling with an occasional musing thrown in. Because of this, we the reader forget that we are reading events that have happened in the narrator's past; we are fully engaged in the events unfolding on the page, with the characters with which we interact.

It's a story about the world we live in, with its good and bad, without delving into the world, on a large scale, itself. Rarely do we view Copperfield's place as a citizen of a larger society; rather, his experiences are all relational. He learns of the depths of humanity from the people closest to him—the warm, gregarious Peggotty clan; the unctuous Steerforth; the foolishly optimistic Micawber; the duplicitous Uriah Heep.

On of my most telling observations on this reading experience was the contrast of perspective from that of my own. In a modern world, one in which access is available at our literal fingertips, in which we are inundated with news and opinions, it is a jolt to experience a life in which one's worldview is so strongly influenced by so few people and experiences. Consider that David Copperfield's entire sense of identity and belief was derived from what we read in these pages. It's an experience that is far more personal and intimate than that of today—smaller, perhaps, but no less significant.

Another point: this book is funny! And sentimental! And the poignancy with which Dickens describes certain experiences and emotions was incredibly surprising to me. I guess I tend to view all "classics of literature" from an intellectual frame, assuming the language is straightforward and old-fashioned, lacking expression. But this passage on Copperfield's first bout of intoxication had me laughing, and I'm sure had I not been reading "all-in," focused on the subtleties of language, I would have passed it right by.

"Somebody was smoking. We were all smoking. I was smoking, and trying to suppress a rising tendency to shudder...

Somebody was leaning out of my bed-room window, refreshing his forehead against the cool strone of the parapet, and feeling the air upon his face. It was myself. I was addressing myself as 'Copperfield,' and saying, 'Why did you try to smoke? You might have known you couldn't do it.' Now that somebody was unsteadily contemplating his features in the looking-glass. That was I too. I was very pale in the looking-glass; my eyes had a vacant appearance; and my hair - only my hair, nothing else - looked drunk...

...We went downstairs, one behind another. Near the bottom, somebody fell, and rolled down. Somebody else said it was Copperfield. I was angry at that false report, until finding myself on my back in the passage, I began to think there might be some foundation for it."

I stated in my last post that the dedication I devoted to reading David Copperfield was refreshing; I am so used to breezing through books as we breeze through everything else—news, Netflix, social media—consuming as much as possible in as little time as possible. In some regards I think we suffer from an overabundance of culture available for our consumption. When you live your life alongside the "so many books, so little time" mentality, it becomes habit to speed through one thing to move onto the other. Reading this classic reminded me that books like this were written to be savored, slowly consumed and absorbed, and perhaps that is a mentality I should adopt more often.

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