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Please Sir, Etc.

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So, I’m going to tell you right off. I don’t know how this post is going to go.  AOL is doing that wonky thing where things will and won’t load, or whatever, and then it all starts over again.

At the moment, I’m having one of those odd experiences that I can’t quite find an adjective for.

Yesterday, having come to the end of The Imitation of Christ and not knowing what I wanted to read, I started looking through the TBR pile.

The TBR pile at our house is not exclusive to me.  Matt’s books are there, even though he’s seldom in Connecticut.  Greg’s books are there.  Both Matt and Greg have their own TBR piles in their own bedrooms, but that doesn’t stop them from putting stuff on mine.

At any rate, whatever the rationale, other people’s books are on my TBR pile all the time, and this time, when I went looking through what’s there for something I could get interested in, what I found was a trade paperback copy of Oliver Twist.

Oliver Twist is a book I have–well, I don’t want to say a long history with, because that’s not quite true.

What it is is the first book I ever read–well, a real book.  Not something for children.  Not something for school (although I read long before I went to school).

I was about eight years old, and at the time we were living in Bethel, Connecticut.  The main street in Bethel is called Greenwood Avenue, and the library was in an old house there on a corner near Mullaney’s five and dime store and the railroad tracks that took people to New York to work.

This was, quite literally, a house.  It had been given to the town for use as a library by somebody or the other.  The ground floor had been converted into what you’d expect of a library, with shelves and stacks and a counter to check books out. 

Almost everybody went to that floor almost automatically, but there was another part of the place.  If you took the front staircase to the second floor, you found a small landing with bookshelves and a door that led to a largish room with even more bookshelves and a big conference type table.

On that landing and in that room were the books the library had decided were “classics.” 

Oliver Twist was one of those classics.  It was the first one I found.  I was the first one I read.  And if I read today, endlessly and compulsively, Oliver Twist is why.

I’m not sure this makes a lot of sense in terms of what my later tastes in literature have been, but there it was.  I found the book.  I sat down on the floor.  I opened it up.  I started reading it.  An hour and a half later, my mother charged at me, wanting to know where I had been and what I thought I was doing.

I checked out Oliver Twist and David Copperfield both, on the assumption that if I loved one thing by Dickens I would love too–and I was never the same after that as I have been before.

I think it’s odd that I can remember both when I learned to read–or, at least, when other people first knew I could read–and when I knew that if I could find a way, all I wanted to do was read. 

The when other people knew I could read thing is probably my second oldest memory, because I could not have been more than two years and eleven months old at the time. 

I know that, because I found the entire scene bewildering.  We were at my Aunt Mary’s house, before she married my Uncle Austin.  This was in or around Washington, DC, and Aunt Mary worked for an Admiral.

Later on in that trip, the Admiral would take us on a short tour of a submarine that wasn’t underwater. 

At any rate, at some point during this trip, my Aunt Mary bought me a Little Golden Book called, I think, The Ugly Platybus.  For some reason, I’m choking on the title at the moment.  It was a story about a duck-billed platybus, though, and it was an ugly duckling story. 

And I took the book, and sat down in a chair, and read it out loud.  My mother and my aunt were talking, and it took a while for them to realize what I was doing.

In fact, they probably didn’t believe it at first, because my Aunt Mary came over to see what the book really said, and when she saw that it said what I was saying, she got excited beyond belief. She ran around, hugging me and exclaiming that it was wonderful, it was wonderful, I could read!

I thought she was completely addled.  Of course I could read.  Everybody could read.  My mother, on the other hand, was having a baby.

That’s how I know how old I was.  My mother was pregnant with my brother, which I thought was a very big deal.  My brother was two years and eleven months younger than I was.

The revelation on the second floor of the Bethel Public Library, though, was something else.  It was, in more ways than one, irrevocable.

I rose from the floor a different person than I was when I sat down on it.  I have never been anything but that same person since.

And that makes it all the odder that, in the many years since, I have never reread Oliver Twist before now.

I am, let’s face it, the kind of person who rereads books.  I reread some books over and over again.  There were a couple of decades when I reread The Razor’s Edge and Rebecca every Christmas season. 

I even reread mystery novels, including ones (like The Murder of Roger Ackroyd and Murder on the Orient Express) that I couldn’t help remembering the solution to if I wanted to.

Still, whatever the reason, I never reread Oliver Twist, and I never reread David Copperfield, either.

I got started on the books on the second floor and just went through the shelves as if I’d die if I didn’t finish them.  I read The Scarlet Pimpernel and Anna Karenina.  I read The Great Gatsby and The Count of Monte Cristo. I read volume after volume of The Best American Plays, 19–. 

And let me tell you, Tennessee Williams was quite an education–if a very confused one I didn’t straighten out until I was about 13.

So–what do I think of Oliver Twist now that I’m rereading it?

I think it’s a wonderful book, as wonderful as I thought it was the first time, although there are now parts of it that make me very uncomfortable. 

I know some of you just can’t stand Dickens, but there is something about Dickens’s narrative voice that just pulls me in.  It always feels to me as if, in this book, somebody in particular is talking directly to me. 

On the other hand, this is not where my taste came to settle.  This is not the kind of thing I read when I go looking for something I know I want.  I still love Victorian novels, but I prefer the “grown up” ones, like Trollope and James.

But it does strike me that many of Dickens’s points about the treatment and especially of the children of the poor–well, it strikes me that they sound a lot like what we sometimes discuss here.

Written by janeh

May 30th, 2012 at 6:37 am

Posted in Uncategorized

3 Responses to 'Please Sir, Etc.'

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  1. Always good to revisit old friends. I hope they’re as pleasant as you remember them.

    Slower all around here. I learned to read in First Grade. Of course, I came home from First Grade and read newspapers. (Mom and Dad were youngest children and I was an only, so no one new this was unusual until a social worker cousin came to visit.)

    But the transition to grown-up books was so smooth I can’t nail it down. I can’t have been older than 11 because there was some fuss about library cards and the old library building that closed before I turned 12. I remember some reasonably heavyweight history and mythology, but I think in SF the transition from Norton or Heinlein juveniles into adult works was imperceptible. I DO remember reading Heinlein’s ORPHANS OF THE SKY very close on the same time I was assigned GREAT EXPECTATIONS. It was when I realized that the English teachers and I were not playing on the same team.

    I still prefer the cleaner Heinlein style, but I think it was less style than plot. For seven years, Homer and Shakespeare aside, Great Books were oficially those in which one suffered and reflected on a problem. If you actually did anything about it, you were demoted to genre, taken off the RRL and sent home with a note to your editor.


    30 May 12 at 5:42 pm

  2. Should have added that I realize that’s nt inherently true of mainstream. It just seemed to be the schools’ preference. Glad you found something you remember fondly.


    30 May 12 at 6:46 pm

  3. I liked a lot of my school books. About the only Dickens I read in school was an excerpt from Great Expectations, but I read Nicholas Nickleby on my own at a fairly young age, having come across a reference to it somewhere. Not Oliver Twist, oddly enough, although it’s much better known and I certainly had access to it, due to a great public library (well, for the size of the town) and librarian, plus parents who encouraged me. I became wildly enthusiastic about the three musketeers at one point, and they bought me the set for my birthday, which I enjoyed a lot and still have. No Amazon, in those days – the nearest bookshop had to order in copies, and when they came in different coloured bindings, tried to tell them that was they way they were intended to be.

    I don’t remember much from my very early childhood, and much of what I think I remember are probably ‘memories’ based on family stories. My father took a deep interest in how we learned, and decided to find out how much we could pick up. So he taught us to read, stopping if we seemed bored. He used phonics – and we’d always been read to from infancy as well. So I knew how to read before I started school, and books were already an important part of my life. My first memory of reading for others is of getting up in front of my kindergarten class and reading aloud for my teacher, whom I much admired. For some odd reason, she wanted me to stand near the classroom door. It turned out that she had been trying to convince the principal and my parents that I should be ‘put ahead’ because I could already read and was getting bored. But I was a shy child and wouldn’t read for the principal, who was lurking on the other side of the door!

    This was back before the local school was combined with others in the region into a larger school board, which was run for a while by an educational expert who thought that parents couldn’t and shouldn’t teach their children to read. I think the idea was that it would interfere with the efforts of the professionals. Well, the professionals who taught me mostly didn’t worry about stuff like that.


    31 May 12 at 6:56 am

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