Tuesday, 1 January 2013

Intimidating books

My plans to start the new year with a flurry of exercise and administrative efficiency have been hampered somewhat by a stinking cold. I thought I'd done well to avoid it as my family fell one by one but, just as I was congratulating myself on my immunity, I too have succumbed.

But it could be worse. I have a huge stock of reading material to keep me occupied. You might remember that I was hankering after a fine cloth bound edition of Les Miserables. Well, I was not disappointed on that or many other counts. My intention was to read it before watching the film that is to released mid January. Now I have the book in my hands I realise the flaw in my thinking. With 1232 pages of tiny print it is, quite frankly, massive.

Now I'm not easily intimidated by a book, but weighty tomes like this do fill me with a certain sense of dread. Yet with the inclement weather and another week off work, I have girded my loins and taken the plunge. And what a treat it is too! Clearly my year of studying the nineteenth century novel has paid dividends. What does it matter that it has taken the first seventy pages to establish that the Bishop of Digne is both generous and open minded? And then, just when I thought we had an inciting incident in the arrival of the ex-convict Jean Valjean, we have another diversion into his backstory and the injustices of French society. Perhaps it's just the luxury of sustained spells of reading, but I am really having a ball.

It might even be the time to tackle my other bête noire - Mary Warnock's Existentialism. I find this combination of big ideas and academic writing quite intimidating. My husband's gift of 'The Existentialist's Guide to Death, the Universe and Nothingness' might be more accessible. Certainly it started well over a hot chocolate in Caffe Nero, but then I started scratching my head over the distinction between 'being-for-itself' and 'being-of-itself'. Perhaps that's one to pursue another day.


  1. I envy you, Karen. When I have a cold reading is completely impossible; I just can't concentrate for long enough. That's when my stock of audiobooks comes out. I find it easier to listen than to read. As for 'Les Miserables', I read it years ago and absolutely loved it. As you say, long it may be but it is superb storytelling. The reason I read it was because that first section about the Bishop has been made into a play called 'The Bishop's Candlesticks' which my school house (Austen) produced as our offering for the House Cup in my last year. (This is not as grand as it sounds, we were just an ordinary Grammar School at a time when they were still ten a penny.) I was the Bishop. Having what I considered to be a head start I plunged into it and was caught up before I realised what a formidable task I'd set myself. I hope you go enjoying it as much as you are now and that your cold is soon better.

    1. Thank you Alex, I'm feeling much better now.

      That's a wonderful memory of 'Les Miserables' and what an honour to play the Bishop!

  2. I was fortunate enough to have a PhD student to work with who was a delight and we really bonded over the years we were together. Half his PhD was on Hugo and half on Sartre, the link being their commitment to politics and drama combined. He adored Les Mis and swore it was just a huge blockbuster and a synch to read, the Sidney Sheldon of the 19th century! As for your existentialist issue, the words obscure but the idea simple. In-itself refers to inanimate objects like chairs and stones. When being is for-itself it simply means there's a self-reflexive consciousness at work, which only happens in human beings. We are aware of what we do (though not always, alas, and Sartre's personal life bears the evidence of what happens if you don't pay sufficient attention to your blind spots, but that's another story). I'm really sorry about the cold, though. My husband has it too!

    1. Hugo and Sartre? Now there's a PhD I could get out of bed for! I agree with your student, Les Mis is such a pleasure to read.

      Thanks for the clarification re existentialism. That's what I thought. I think my husband's enjoying his book, and gives me regular updates. It's making for some interesting discussions.


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