Monday, April 30, 2007

Off the Shelf: Bleak House

Four Months and 881 pages later, I can say "finis" -- I've completed reading Charles Dicken's Bleak House. Just for comparison -- I finished World War Z in three days, same for The Da Vinci Code. I couldn't just do a hit and run reading of Dickens' massive tome -- I had to dwell in it for a while. With a work like this, you don't just read about the characters, you develop relationships with them -- they become a part of you.

Way back in January, I put up this post about the joys of reading -- and I also linked this this great article from the Washington Post in which a school commends Bleak House to a student:

I recently spoke with a junior who was stressed about her decreasing ability to focus on anything for longer than two minutes or so. I tried to inspire her by talking about the importance of reading as a way to train the brain. I told her that a good reader develops the same powers of concentration that an athlete or a Buddhist would employ in sport or meditation. "A lot out there is conspiring to distract you," I said.

She rolled her eyes. "That's your opinion about books. It doesn't make it true." To her, the idea that reading might benefit the mind was, well, lame.

A library's neglected shelves reveal the demise of something important, especially for young readers starved for meaning -- for anything profound. Still, I'm not ready to throw in the towel just yet. I'm turning the new-arrivals shelf into a main attraction in my school's library. Recently I stood Charles Dickens's "Bleak House" next to the DVD version produced by the BBC. Lady Dedlock (Gillian Anderson) graced both covers. A senior fingered the DVD for a minute, then turned it over to read the blurb. "The book is too long," she said. "Is the movie any better?"

So is the book too long? Not at all. Dickens is masterful in this one -- he tells about a dozen different stories under the umbrella of the story of young Esther Summerson, a sweet, lovable orphan who is taken under the care of John Jarndyce, a benevolent British gentleman who wants her to become friend and companion to his two young cousins Richard and Ada. Sounds kind of tame --

But John, Richard, and Ada are all potential inheiritors in a will that is contested in one of the most convoluted lawsuits of English history -- as the young cousins come into their own, will that drive a wedge between them? What of the brooding noblewoman, Lady Dedlock, who has a mysterious secret that she conspires to keep hidden -- and of the retired soldier who is deeply indebted to Smallweed, the loan shark. Their stories tie in along with a legion of crafty lawers who make John Grisham's creations look like the muppetts. I believe there are about four dozen characters in all, each of them vivid in detail. Dickens sketches his characters in such a way that they pull up a seat beside you and take a cup of tea (or pour the hot tea on your lap, if that's their type). You learn to love them or hate them.

Dickens isn't shy about making social statements either. He lampoons the byzantine legal system of the British Chancery courts (this novel played a part in the reform of those very systems); he upholds the plight of the urban poor (social workers should read this book -- many things have changed, and many things stay the same); he skewers the hypocrisy of "do gooders" who care awfully much about causes, but care very little for people.

Oh yes, he also includes murder, death by drug overdose, and spontaneous human combustion. Anyone approaching this book claiming boredom has only his lack of imagination to blame. It's a long read -- the kind of thing to settle down with and enjoy over a season of time. But it's one of those glorious works that made me feel cleaner, better, and ennobled through the reading. It certainly fits the criteria of Philippians 4:8: "Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these thngs."

Soli Deo Gloria