Most books don’t actually universally suck

by Rachel Baker on December 11, 2007

The other day, I was watching AMC and a commercial for A Christmas Carol was shown. This was one of the first “classic” stories I remember receiving as a gift. I remember liking the story – but not loving it as much as the movie or the play.

Over the years, I’ve tried repeatedly to read Charles Dickens. He’s difficult reading, for no other reason than I have a difficult time with the language. I think we pass over a lot of great stories because of the colloquialisms and the regional languages that are different than our own. I think also, because we aren’t from the region an author is from, we can’t understand the significance of the settings.
I’ve told you, when I read a book, I often times will research the time period the author is writing in. You can find a million and twelve books that have an underlying social commentary. However, just because you understand the history of the era, doesn’t mean you will completely get it.

I think we have to understand the evolution of language to really understand all of what we are reading. Its easier for us to understand what we are reading by American writers. Our language isn’t that difficult to interpret – it hasn’t been evolving in this country for as many years/decades/centuries as European languages. Also, we don’t have to rely on translations which are often never completely accurate to the original writing. Most of us can read Tom Sawyer without having too much difficulty understanding the language. On the other hand, have you tried to read Our Mutual Friend (Charles Dickens)?

This is the 2nd paragraph of Our Mutual Friend:

“The figures in this boat were those of a strong man with ragged grizzled hair and a sun-browned face, and a dark girl of nineteen or twenty, sufficiently like him to be recognizable as his daughter. The girl rowed, pulling a pair of sculls very easily; the man, with the rudder-lines slack in his hands, and his hands loose in his waistband, kept an eager look out. He had no net, hook, or line, and he could not be a fisherman; his boat had no cushion for a sitter, no paint, no inscription, no appliance beyond a rusty boathook and a coil of rope, and he could not be a waterman; his boat was too crazy and too small to take in cargo for delivery, and he could not be a lighterman or river-carrier; there was no clue to what he looked for, but he looked for something, with a most intent and searching gaze. The tide, which had turned an hour before, was running down, and his eyes watched every little race and eddy in its broad sweep, as the boat made slight head-way against it, or drove stern foremost before it, according as he directed his daughter by a movement of his head. She watched his face as earnestly as he watched the river. But, in the intensity of her look there was a touch of dread or horror.”

I don’t know what sculls are. I don’t know what a “cushion for a sitter” is. I don’t know what a waterman is, or a lighterman or a river-carrier is. Because I have no idea what any of these things are, all I got is the strong man was creepy looking, the girl is probably his daughter and she’s not looking forward to completing the task of what lays ahead.

Here’s Tom Sawyer’s first real paragraph:

“The old lady pulled her spectacles down and looked over them about the room; then she put them up and looked out under them. She seldom or never looked through them for so small a thing as a boy; they were her state pair, the pride of her heart, and were built for “style,” not service — she could have seen through a pair of stove-lids just as well. She looked perplexed for a moment, and then said, not fiercely, but still loud enough for the furniture to hear:”

I got this one. The old lady has a pair of glasses that she uses just because they look good in her opinion. They have no function, they have no purpose but to look good. And she’s kind of mad about something. We can tell alot about this woman initially because of how the spectacles were discribed in this paragraph.

Where am I going with all this, you ask? Well, I think as a whole, American’s have shallow reading habits. If its too hard, we don’t read it. If there’s too much detail we don’t understand, we skip it and move on to the next passage. If we have to use too much of our brains trying to understand the words the author is using, we aren’t able to use our imaginations to see the scene in our own minds. And sometimes we are left saying to ourselves – “and why was that author considered great?” That book sucked.”

Here’s the thing though. A book doesn’t actually universally suck – it just sucked because we couldn’t relate to it. We couldn’t understand the words, we couldn’t visualize where the Thames River is, we didn’t know what a specific profession was to be able to understand the significance of a man not being of that profession. The value of the story was lost because we live in a different time than the author was trying to convey.

With this in mind, how much longer will some of these stories be around? If the majority of people can’t understand them anymore, what’s the point? When will sales drop enough that publishers stop publishing “new editions”? Will my nephew understand Tom Sawyer? Will his nephew? and will his nephew? Three generations from now, will there be any reason to read The Curiosity Shop or Oliver Twist or Our Mutual Friend?

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