Welcome. I am the author of Universal Time, a sci-fi urban comedy;
Beaufort 1849, an historical novel set in antebellum South Carolina;
and Pearl City Control Theory, a comedy of manners set in present-day San Francisco.

Thursday, April 7, 2011

The Delights of 19th Century Literature Should Not be Inflicted on the Young

Dickens--Torturer or Genius?
“Nooooooo,” I can hear a million high schoolers cry. “Don’t make us read one of those books. We’d rather set our hair on fire and wrestle fat pigs while calculating azimuths than touch one of those again.”

So sad. Too many people have been flung into the dungeons of “real” literature by being given the wrong book at the wrong time. If this happened to you, causing you to resolutely turn your back on what people solemnly intone as “the classics,” I urge you to reconsider!

Part of why I decided to write a book set in 1849 was due to my deep love of 19th century literature. But each author—whether it be Dickens, Austen or Tolstoy—takes some getting used to. The diction, vocabulary, and even sentence structure, while not as gnarly as Shakespeare, are distant enough from our own to require acclimation to an unfamiliar terrain. But once you make the two-century leap, remarkable satisfactions await.

Let’s start with Dickens. Brilliant man, truly, but he can be uneven--after all, he wrote a heck of a lot. Many high schools shove Great Expectations down their students’ throats, (I did it to my son—sorry, sweetie!) probably because it’s a coming of age novel and relatively short (for Dickens.) The problem is that while the first hundred pages are great and the last hundred pages are exciting, the middle two hundred can drag like a dying horse hauling a comatose Godzilla. The most accessible Dickens novel, hands down, is A Christmas Carol. Yes, everyone has seen a trillion versions of it, but the real thing is funny, lively, and contains both fabulous character sketches and brilliant descriptions. And did I mention it’s short? This is the Dickens teenagers should cut their teeth on. Once you have that under your belt (and let’s say you’re over 25), you could try A Tale of Two Cities (I love Sydney Carton, a sarcastic 20th century type of guy trapped in the 18th) or, my absolute favorite, Bleak House. (The worst thing about this book is its title. Trust me.) I advise waiting to read Bleak House until you’re 35, though. When you’re done with the book, watch the 2005 BBC version. Fabulous.

We’ll move on to Austen. In my opinion, her most accessible book is easily Pride and Prejudice. While I enjoy and admire all six of Austen’s complete novels, this is the one I can reread every few years, each time smiling at the humor and savoring her incredible turn of phrase. Teen girls who are big readers will lap up this one from age 14 on. The rest of the world might want to wait until age 28 or so.

There are, of course, scores of 19th century literary possibilities. I’m a fan of Trollope’s Palliser series (for ages 30+, unless you just love Victorian literature.) I thought Vanity Fair readable enough, and The Woman in White a pretty good mystery. The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes I have read every dozen years, starting at age 12. Moby Dick and The Scarlet Letter left me cold, but The House of Seven Gables was interesting, the brooding gothic of Jane Eyre holds up pretty well (keep reading at least until you get to the fire part—it’s worth it) and Melville’s novella, Bartleby, The Scrivener, is nothing short of astonishing. After you’ve dipped your toes into Victorian literary waters and you’re ready for a longer swim, it’s time to tackle the big kahunas. There are reasons why Anna Karenina (better than War and Peace) and Les Miserables are classics. Get into their rhythm and swing and you will find two stories that echo and reverberate across the centuries. I think they are best appreciated after age 28—maybe even later. Following these, if you’re a true Victorian nut and the thought of a sentence lasting half a page thrills you, it’s time to talk Henry James. But inflict the guy on17 year olds? How cruel can you be?

What is your favorite piece of 19th century literature, and at what age should it be read?


  1. Thanks for the apology...

    In terms of 19th-century literature:
    Verne is good (Journey to the Center of the Earth), as is some of the early Wells which just barely slips in (Time Machine, The Island of Doctor Moreau, etc). A Christmas Carol is great, although I am still turned off of most Dickens (perhaps I just need to age more). The Three Musketeers is brilliant. Les Miserables is not to be forgotten either. Sadly, Voltaire wrote in the previous century...

  2. Verne, Wells and Dumas--all excellent recommendations for accessible classics! I thought Around the World in Eighty Days was pretty much fun. (And to be fair, Conan Doyle just barely slips into the 19th century, too.)

    I love the story about why the restaurant on the Eiffel Tower is called Le Jules Verne. Evidently Verne thought the tower an abomination on the Paris skylie but lunched at the restaurant on its second level nearly every day. When asked why, he said it was the only place in Paris where he could eat where he didn't have to look at the darn thing. (Or words to that effect in French.)

    And while I'm oozing on about Verne, this is fascinating: "In 1863, Jules Verne wrote a novel called 'Paris in the 20th Century' about a young man who lives in a world of glass skyscrapers, high-speed trains, gas-powered automobiles, calculators, and a worldwide communications network, yet cannot find happiness and comes to a tragic end."