Tuesday, February 22, 2011


Oprah's 2-in-1 edition
I was thrilled when a friend phoned me a week ago Friday to ask if I'd read A Tale of Two Cities and Great Expectations - and if so, would I like to go to Oprah's book club taping with her in exactly seven days? Sort of, and YES!, I said.

I loved A Tale of Two Cities when I read it 50 years ago, but the details had become a bit hazy since then. And I must have read excerpts from Great Expectations (wasn't it in our high-school English book?) or watched a film version, though I remembered nothing but Miss Havisham, the eternal bride. But I'd gladly spend all week reading, I promised.

Reading 900 pages in 4 days, it turned out, was the most fun I've had since the internet was invented. No Facebook! No blogposts! No article writing! Very little e-mail! It was the best of times.

Getting to see Oprah just three months before she shuts down her show was a bonus. And yes, she is fabulous.

Though, for the first time ever in the history of Oprah's book club - 65 books in 15 years! - her selection did not become a bestseller. "I guess I shouldn't have chosen a book that most of you already have on your shelves," she said. Indeed, most of the 350 of us in her studio were carrying well-thumbed older editions of the books. (Opportunity for those who don't still have your high-school copies: right now the large, handsome paperback is on sale at Amazon for $4.97.)

Oprah's guest was novelist Jane Smiley (A Thousand AcresMoo), who has also written a short biography of Charles Dickens. Compared to Oprah, Smiley is somewhat reserved (who isn't?), but she more than held her own in the discussion. Since this was Oprah's book club, not her regular show, there was no hoopla. The two women simply sat at a desk and chatted about Dickens, Victorian England, and the two books for half an hour or so before taking audience questions. I had predicted that many people in the audience would be wearing glasses, and I was right. We were English teachers, librarians, and bookstore nerds all - including cast members of Les Misérables who dropped in for the show. (They carry a shelf of books with them on tour so they can read when they're not onstage, one of them told us. "Haven't you heard of Kindle?" asked Smiley.)

The book club webcast will be broadcast at 5:00 p.m. EST today. Click here to see the webcast or to click through to more information about the two Dickens books.

If you decide to read or reread these books, here are a few things I noticed that might interest you too.
  • Notice what a difference the narrative point of view makes. In TOTC, Dickens steps back, sits down next to God, and watches the pageant unroll. He not only tells us a story, he also inserts social commentary and philosophy. In GE, by contrast, Pip tells his own story. If he doesn't experience it, it's not in the book. This makes GE seem more personal and relational than TOTC. I liked both approaches, but I found GE easier to read.
  • Look at how Dickens portrays women. A badly mistreated woman is at the heart of both stories, but a woman is the hero of neither. In both books, women, if victims, wreak vengeance. Well-treated women, by contrast, are generally docile creatures who exist to serve the interests of their husbands, fathers, or employers (if they are servants). Hey, Dickens was what he was, and grown-up feminists can enjoy him anyway. But if you're discussing these books with kids, his view of women might be worth talking about.
  • Compare the societies Dickens describes (English and French, 18th and 19th centuries) with our society today. We've come a long way from the days when orphans were left to roam the streets and miscreants were hanged for minor offenses, and for that I am deeply grateful. Now, as we consider ways to cut back governmental spending, we might want to think twice about policies that increase the gap between rich and poor, that reduce social services for the indigent, and that allow the infrastructure to crumble. In Dickensian London, it was every man for himself, and the results weren't pretty.
  • Admire Dickens's brilliant psychological insights. In 1859 when A Tale of Two Cities was published, Sigmund Freud was 3 years old. C.G. Jung would not be born for another 20 years. Without their help, Dickens instinctively knew how events shape people, how relationships deteriorate and grow, how repressed rage finds an outlet, how love and hatred are created. He also knew how people thought and talked - children and adults, nobles and peasants, servants and masters, city folk and country folk, criminals and lawyers, terrorists and bankers. As Smiley pointed out, Dickens has a range of human understanding that surpasses that of perhaps any other novelist in the English language.
Yes, Dickens's books are long. To find time to read one, you might have to turn off your electronic devices for a while. Except for Kindle, of course: you can download both books free of charge here.


Eleni Sakellar said...

Thanks Lavonne, Dickens has always been one of my favorite authors and your post reminded me I've been meaning to re-read TOTC. The old copy we had when I grew up was shared by 7 family members and I have no idea where it is now. So looks like I'll have to go out and buy the one Oprah's recommended. Who knows, if there are enough people like me it may yet become a best seller!

Joe Hindman said...

Great review Lavonne. GE has been one of my all time favorites. In 9th grade, it WAS in our High School English book in a "Readers Digest" form. I opted to have Mother get me the REAL book and read it. I've re-read it at least 5 times over my lifetime. Time to do it again. TOTC has been a struggle for me. I think I'm MATURE enough to tackle it again.... and FINISH it!

Anonymous said...

LaVonne, I think it is interesting that Dickens isn't given the credit he should be given for being the philosopher that he obviously was in addition to being a superior psychological observer. I thought I had read them, but was mistaken. I have read other of his writings and intend to read all of them I can find before I go blind.