I picked Great Expectations again recently, and am surprised at how much I’m enjoying it. The whole “eat your heart and liver” bit was great. Pip’s young child terror was palpable. In the back of my mind is the thought that this book is much better at thirty than sixteen.
I’ve always maintained that Dickens was a talented hack. In high school I read a few short stories, A Tale of Two Cities (loathed it) and Great Expectations (loved it, and I call him a hack because he capitulated to public opinion and wrote a happy ending). I didn’t understand why we were reading him though. It certainly didn’t reflect how they wanted us to write. Dear god, the man talks about everyone being a little tipsy in the most convoluted manner. “The sergeant took polite leave of the ladies, and parted from Mr. Pumblechook as from a comrade; I doubt if he were quite as fully sensible of that gentleman’s merits under arid conditions, as when something moist was going.” Even rewriting this, I want to revise it. “The sergeant took polite leave of the ladies, and parted from Mr. Pumblechook as from a comrade. I doubt he was aware of that gentleman’s merits under arid conditions, as they were currently moist.”
No, I’m not improving upon Dickens, but trying smooth it out into something more familiar. I’m supporting my point with my own urge to render his Victorian script more modern. For that matter, while we’re talking about books read in high school, my teacher didn’t even bother trying to get us to read Shakespeare. We watched the movie instead (I still read the book, but I like Shakespeare). I’d like to point out, we weren’t supposed to be writing like Shakespeare either.
Now, it’s been forever since I’ve picked up J. K. Rowlings, Vonnegut, or other books favored by that set, but they were probably more along the lines of what we should have been writing like in high school. Funny thing, you get to read those authors in college (along with greats like Shakespeare and Dickens). I don’t understand why they don’t shuffle it around a bit, give the teenagers crap they like to read, and they can read Shakespeare and Dickens and Hemingway when they can appreciate it.
Although, I should note, I don’t protest to the entirety of the high school curriculum. In general, I like short stories. If it’s difficult to read, it’s still of a manageable length. Hemingway, Dickens, Flannery O’Connor, Truman Capote, wrote delightful short stories. Hell, even Steinbeck wrote of few humorous novellas (Tortilla Flats being my favorite). Sprinkle in some Rowlings and other popular YA authors, and kids might actually enjoy high school English. They won’t have to wonder why the hell they’re being told not to write run-on sentences while reading (I’m looking at you Dickens).
I’m going to finish up Great Expectations, and after that, I’ll give A Tale of Two Cities another go. Who knows, maybe the behemoth will grow on me. I might round it up Moby Dick, which I haven’t read. I seem to through English periods in my reading (this spring it was Bronte party time).
Git yer Dickens at Gutenberg! Along with many of the other authors mentioned here.