That column may have encouraged some of you to drop what you were doing, turn off the football game on television, grab a nearby book and start reading. If, on the other hand, you shook your head at my attempt to promote reading and went on about your business, that’s OK. Having one’s nose in a book is certainly not everyone’s cup of tea.
Writing that column, though, prompted me to change my reading habits slightly. As I pointed out in that column, I lean toward non-fiction when I look for something to read, which is probably a little strange for someone who spent years encouraging, and frequently assigning, the reading of novels. Not just any novels, of course, because my job was to have my students read what we call “literature.”
I hesitate going into what makes a book “literature” instead of just an ordinary book. The line between the two types is pretty fuzzy, and it moves around a lot. Take Shakespeare, for example. There was a time when academic types held that William’s efforts were not worthy of study. Why that is true is difficult to explain, especially to a room full of teens suffering from terminal senioritis.
So I used to tell them that classics are the sort of books a professor might expect them to know about when they get to college. “The Scarlet Letter” is such a book; “Valley of the Dolls” probably isn’t. This works until some kid brings a list of courses from the college he is interested in attending, and points out that one of the course offerings is entitled, “The significance of Archie comic books in 21st Century adolescents.”
This is not to say that nobody should read an Archie comic book or “Valley of the Dolls.”
Not every book has to be serious literature, and there’s nothing wrong with reading a book for fun, but don’t expect me to accept a book report on it. From an academic perspective, a student should read something with a bit more substance if he or she wants to escape a college English class without wrecking their grade-point average.
The point is, I’m not bad-mouthing books that, speaking from an academic perspective, I wouldn’t call “literature.” So please don’t picket the Tribune office when I say this would include Craig Johnson’s Longmire books. As I said in my previous column, I’ve read them all and liked them. They are well constructed and make pleasant reading, and I think they are much better than the television series, which has mangled some of the characters — especially Henry Standing Bear.
However, when I finished the latest Longmire book, “The Western Star,” I thought I should read another novel, something I’d call literature. I remembered picking up just such a novel from a book club a couple of decades ago, but never reading it. I went in search of this book and found it on one of our more remote bookshelves. I blew the dust from it and placed it by my chair. Last week, I began reading it.
Compared to “The Western Star,” it’s a heavy book. I mean actually, physically heavy, heavier even than “Hamilton,” the book I wrote about before — and “Hamilton” was 730 pages long. Friday morning, I reached the halfway point in my latest book, on page 630. As of Friday evening, I passed page 700 of Victor Hugo’s “Les Misérables,” so I have something over 500 pages left to read.
You might think reading such a book would be a bit unpleasant. “Les Misérables” is a product of French culture 150 years ago and its setting is even further back in time. In addition, myriad characters, some with multiple French names, come and go during the course of the novel, leading to confusion about just who is doing what. Furthermore, the author tends to stray from the actual story to provide background information or comment on morality, ethics, politics, justice, religion or the individuals of historical interest who may or may not have anything to do with the story.
But I am enjoying “Les Misérables.” That’s because, despite being a work of fiction, the history of France in the years following Napoleon’s defeat at Waterloo is an integral part of the story. Despite that defeat, France was moving away from a monarchy that ruled by divine right to a more democratic society and eventually, most of Europe would follow.
Questions of justice, morality, religion and other societal issues accompanied that movement, and violence often erupted over them, as it does in “Les Misérables.” While we live in a much different world than Victor Hugo did, all the issues that arise in “Les Misérables” are just as troublesome now as well. In the end, that’s what makes this book more than just a story, and why it is worth reading.
It’s also why I find reading it enjoyable — even if it’s 1,200 pages long.