gold manicure while reading
I am currently experiencing an ‘I did it! I finally did it!’ moment, you guys. I started Alexandre Dumas’ The Count of Monte Cristo just before Christmas, as something to occupy what little free time bar managers get in December, and as of this weekend just gone, I finally finished it. Nearly 900, densely packed pages; even as someone with literature university qualifications I can’t help but feel a sense of achievement.
My tastes in literature are certainly erratic. I couldn’t pinpoint a particular strand of literature that holds my attention more than others. to vary the pace and pleasures of my reading I ricochet wildly between centuries, genders, countries, genres, styles and forms. Rare is the book that can’t tell you something about the society in which it was written. having said that, and feel free to call me out for snobbery here if you want, since I’m pretty sure that’s what it is; I’ll not be dipping into Twilight, Fifty Shades, or any other such zeitgeist-inducing nonsense. Not least because I’m annoyed that it’s marketed directly at me. I’m sure if I were a man i’d be fuming that I was expected to enjoy Andy McNab and The World According to Clarkson too. Contemporary gender-oriented marketing hardly gives anyone a fair deal.
I found a flower a boy gave me that I pressed in the summer about halfway through.
Anyway, total tangent. What I’m getting at is that a lot of people expressed surprise that this was a book I would read. I’m putting out there now that it’s not surprising at all. There’s, I guess, kind of an image of readers of the classics as serious, uptight customers; almost old-school in their approach to life. And then there’s me, the sequin wearing, giggly hospitality miss who can’t take herself seriously for more than ten minutes. But I do read the classics. And do you know why? cos they’re just like television.
And this is the point where you all go ‘what?’, and look at me like I’ve lost my marbles, eh? I am deadly serious. Reading a big chunky classic over the course of a week or two (or three if you take a week off to get drunk in the middle, thankyou Christmas!) is entirely similar to the televisual experience. and let me explain my theory on this to you.
I am terrible at watching TV. I can’t keep up, is the plain and simple reason. My job means I’m out working my arse off when most of it is on, and yeah I know, on demand services and streaming, and whatnot is at my disposal, but I find it difficult to sit still long enough. I can watch films, self contained little narratives that tie themselves up within two hours, because once you’ve watched it, you’re part of the discussion surrounding it immediately. You don’t then have to top up the next week to keep yourself in the game. It’s laziness really. Yes, apparently you can be lazy about TV.
A light mushroom and parsley pasta and French literature is a good pre-work fix.
And the thing about classics is that initially a lot of them were serialized, remember? People used to get monthly Dickens fixes, and probably gossip as excitedly about them as we do these days about Mad Men and The Wire. Which is probably why the classics are all so huge. It’s like you’re holding a five season boxset in your hands. Now, you could sit down and mainline the whole thing over the course of a couple of days, going full pelt and really immersing yourself, or, if like me, you read on the bus to and from work, you eke it out and get a daily fix. It’s like a soap opera. You pick it up and retune in, wondering what’s gonna happen after the cliffhanger you left at yesterday.
Or not so much. Because the other thing about the classics is that they’re often unsurprising. So much a part of our social fabric already, it’s rare to pick up a book from centuries ago without having a fairly strong idea what’s going to happen. But in that way it’s no different from TV. I mean yes, occasionally something blindsides you, but as in the world of soap opera, the comforting tropes that define the genre always make you fairly certain that the morally terrible characters will get their comeuppance, the good guys will come out on top, the good girls will get their men, and there’ll probably be a neat Christian conclusion to tie it all up at the end. Everybody knows that the shady gangster in Eastenders will eventually get killed by likely his youngest and most innocent family member, just as everybody knows the avaricious eighteenth century banker will eventually be stripped of all his assets and lose his possession-oriented pride in public. That doesn’t make it any less satisfying to read, and says as much about the society then as our serialized dramas say about the now.
The cast of characters and geographic sprawl of The Count of Monte Cristo are larger than any TV show I care to think of, mind. There’s something powerful about holding the whole of Europe and at least fifty years in your hand at once. Dipping in and out of this for half an hour every morning and night is immeasurably more attention fixing and satisfying to me than television could ever be. Not to mention more portable and in keeping with my lifestyle. I always feel like books are what you bring to them. You can switch off and watch TV. I’m not so sure that’s how it works with books. I don’t buy the literature as escapism argument, because I passionately believe that reading is a participatory act. You have to contribute to gain anything from a book. To my mind readers are endeavouring to question their surroundings, not leave them.
I’m incredibly glad I read The Count of Monte Cristo. It was given to me as a present by an old housemate, who said it was his favourite book. This added another dimension of enjoyability to it. You get a glimpse into someone’s mind if you read their favourites. it’s a beautifully oblique way to figure out what makes people tick. And if it’s a huge tome about retribution, full of decadent descriptions of revolution era luxury, and glimpse into the criminal underbelly of the time, so much the better. Although, having powered on through to the end, I’m on the hunt for something a little lighter, more modern and snippy now. Wish me luck.