Les Miserables

on 01 June 2012

It's funny that Brett asked for this one, because my sister and I have been talking about this book a lot lately.  Her 15 year old just finished reading it and she and Jeff are reading/listening to it for the first time as well.  Three years ago, I led an informal reading/discussion seminar with her 2 oldest children with the unabridged text.

It is one of my favorite novels.  For textual, stylistic and sentimental reasons.  Allow me to expound.

I was 17 years old when my niece was born.  Sherry was living in New Jersey, in a townhouse with NO air conditioner.  We were living in Tennessee at the time, so at the end of that summer we found ourselves in New Jersey visiting Sherry.  It must have felt like a home invasion, now that I look back on it.  Our parents and her two youngest siblings crammed into her small home with her husband and two small children.  I vividly remember spoiling her 2 year old (my nephew William) within an inch of his life...he was absolutely darling.  Long and lean with this thick mop of curly orange hair and enormous blue eyes.  So cute.  But I digress...

It must have been just before we headed home, I was upstairs in Sherry's room while she fed or otherwise cared for her daughter.  I was lazily going through the books on her shelf, when I came across a small, untouched, abridged copy of Les Miserables.  I took it down, read the back cover and asked her if I might borrow it.  The reason I think it was towards the end of the visit was that she didn't even look to see what I had, she just said, "Take it."  (Poor Sherry, she has the patience of Job.)  But take it, I did.

Once we got home, I inhaled that book.  I drank it in, as though I had been wandering in the desert.  And when it was over and I had read the final page, I closed the cover, looked around my room and said, "More.  I need MORE."  I can honestly say that Victor Hugo's Les Miserables started me on my academic path.

It is one of those extraordinary books, a gift from a loving Heavenly Father, to one of His gifted children.  And I don't care what you might or might not believe, I absolutely believe that some books are like that, and this is one of them.  The reason the text is so extraordinary, is that Hugo is communicating eternal truths in a way that, regardless of your religious affiliation, regardless of your educational background, or economic status, the moral truths he expounds are universal and told in such a way that ANYONE can know them.  He uses the most ancient ways of teaching, he tells a story.  Or rather, he tells several stories.  And in the telling of them, the reader comes to know and understand what it means to live a moral life.

This is a very old principle, one that has got rather out of fashion these days, the idea that ART should be instructive rather than provocative.  George Eliot was a believer, as was Charles Dickens, Elizabeth Gaskell, Victor Hugo, Leo Tolstoy, William Thackeray and Stendhal.

It marks the difference between Good books and GREAT books.  Great books continue to teach you every time you read and reread them.  Good books, may entertain, distract, and occasionally provoke thoughts--but Great books CHANGE you.  They change the way you see the world and consequently, they change the way you LIVE in the world.

So I grew up and went the University of Washington and took to studying all manner of literature.  I studied French for the sole reason that I wanted to one day be able to read Les Miserables in the original French.  But I never did get to reread it.  Until I read it with my niece and nephew.

So here are my strategies for reading Great books.

Great books can be hard.  I think they're meant to be hard.  The writers of them expected more from their audience than modern authors do.  So my recommendations are these:
  • Buy your own copy.  Don't borrow from the library.  Even if you get a cheap paperback from Barnes and Nobles, BUY your own copy.
  • Use a decent bookmark.  Don't dogear the pages.  
  • Use a post-it note at the back to flag the start of the endnotes, so that if you come across something in the text that you don't understand, you can easily flip to the back to check the notes for an explanation.
  • Use a good highlighter and take it with you where ever you happen to be reading, so that you can highlight anything you find moving, relevant, or engaging.  I also took to using a pencil in school so that I could write notes in the margins.  My sister tells me you don't really OWN a book until you've written in it.  Now I go back to the books I read and studied in school and I love reading my old notes.  I used to be SMART!
  • When it's a text written in a foreign language (French, German, Russian, Italian whatever), get a GOOD translation.  How can you tell if the translation is any good?  ASK.  The best Russian translators on the market EVER, are Richard Pevear and Larissa Volkhonsky.  Translations of the Romance languages (or German) are not that difficult, get a good edition like the Penguin Classics or Oxford World Classics and you're in clover.
  • I am a big believer in READING the text the first time through.  If you want to get an audio version for "rereading" that's fine, but first time through, I think it needs to come in through your EYES.  (It's worth noting, that you can load up a Kindle with most of these classics for FREE.)
  • Get a good pocket dictionary and keep it with the book.  As you read if you come across a word or expression you're unfamiliar with, look it up.  This was advice given to me when I started at the University of Washington and I followed it and it's changed the way I read.  It's brilliant.
A word or two (or 37) on Audio Books:
  • I'm a fan of audio books.  But they can get expensive, and you have to be careful that you're getting what you really want regarding translation and abridgement.  I just discovered Libravox on iTunes, which is a series of podcasts readings of classic works of literature.  And they're FREE.  If you find yourself pinched for time, I recommend a tandem compromise.  READ when you can, and when you can't because you're chauffeuring children around, or hiking up a mountain, load up an ipod with an audio version and listen to it.  Be warned, LISTENING to classic literature is a very different experience from READING it.  Some classics were intended to be read aloud (Dickens wrote his books with the intention that they would be read aloud to the family of an evening), but some were NOT.  As you read through the cannon, you'll get an idea of the books that were intended to be read aloud and those that weren't.  Les Miserables...I would argue, was NOT meant to be read aloud, only because Victor Hugo has some long tangents in there, that were obviously intended to be read and mulled over, rather than listened to.

There you have it, M's very long treatise on Les Miserables and classic literature in general.  I hope it was entertaining as well as instructive.

For the record, I've read Les Miserables three and a half times.  Twice abridged, once unabridged with my niece and nephew, and I've read sections in French, but I haven't read it all the way through in French.  I suppose that's my next challenge.


RT and M said...

Thanks, awesome post. I loved Les Miserables too, although I had a hard time getting through some parts. I'm curious to know what you think of The Hunchback of Notre Dame. The first time I tried reading it I might have been in middle school and I got through about two pages before I got bored and gave up. The second time was with an audiobook and I finally got tired of it and gave up because it drove me nuts. So maybe I should try again with a physical book.

M said...

I confess, I've never actually READ the Hunchback of Notre Dame. I've read Hugo's Contemplations in French, and I've read some of his essays, but I haven't gotten around to reading any of his other novels. Maybe I'll make THAT my next challenge.

Sibley Saga .... said...

Thanks for the posts! I for one have enjoyed Samwise week. I'm about halfway through "The Chosen" right now and loving it. However, this post makes me think I should read Les Miserables again. I felt like it changed my life the first time I read it as well. I love the preface as well when it says "...so long as ignorance and misery remain on earth, books like this cannot be useless."
Thanks so much my dear for these posts! It's renewed my desire to read good books. My problem now is to not fall asleep while doing so.....stupid pregnancy hormones.