Monday, March 17, 2014

Whooping Cough Winter

I put down "Clarissa" in early December, intending to take a break for a few weeks, which I did. I read Kim Stanley Robinson's science-fiction epic "2312," which I enjoyed, but didn't like. Then the insanity associated with Christmas. Then ...

The Whooping Cough.

Yes, I had the Whooping Cough. Incredibly, I didn't realize that until it was all over in late February. Although in a way, it's not entirely over, because the beating my rib cage took during the ordeal still makes it painful to sneeze or cough, which even healthy people are prone to do. Even more incredibly, no physician (and I saw three several times over the course of six weeks) never suggested that Whooping Cough was what I had. It swept through my area like wildfire, apparently, picking off a few of the parents in my 4-year-old's preschool. It's an unusual affliction ... you don't really feel "sick," as you would during even a mild cold, but the cough itself is so unrelenting and so violent that it literally tears your body apart. "Oh my God!" one nurse exclaimed when she saw the deep blue stain of a bruise that literally covered the entire left side of my torso. I had X-rays because of concerns that possibly one (or more) ribs had broken. (It was "only" torn cartilage ... lucky me.) One afternoon I coughed so hard I threw up. It moved into my head, then took a cruel detour into my right ear, resulting in a painful ear infection. My hearing still has not completely returned to normal. I lost more than 10 pounds. Thank God I have health insurance: I had to spend "only" about $170 in doctor co-pays and drugs. Not helpful; Whooping Cough isn't exactly something one budgets for.

My reading took a hit. "Clarissa" was tucked away for two months, and I occasionally dipped into lighter fare -- magazines, current non-fiction, and graphic novels. Never for very long. It was difficult to concentrate, impossible to get comfortable. It was even a task to get it up for a movie on DVD or Netflix.

Laughably, I sometimes resorted to Pynchon when the hour grew late and sleep wouldn't come: I'd read a few pages of "Gravity's Rainbow," very slowly and deliberately, until my eyelids grew heavy. Nevertheless, I became intrigued. I found cheap used copies of Steven Weisenburger's "A Companion to Gravity's Rainbow" and Zak Smith's extraordinary "Pictures Showing What Happens on Each Page of Thomas Pynchon's Gravity's Rainbow," which strikes me as an even more demented project than Reading Everest. Now, I'm thinking about adding it to Everest (but removing Proust, which may be cheating, but it's my time and my project, and I'll do it any damned way I want).

After two and a half months of hell, the only thing for which I'm grateful is that my kid didn't get it; he was immunized. Well, we all were. But apparently, the vaccine wears off more quickly in adults than children.

So here I am, perched tantalizingly a mere 200+ pages from the end of a 1,500-page novel. Clarissa is dying (of grief, near as I can tell). Lovelace circles like a vulture. I plan to spend today going back over my notes and blog posts from the last 100 pages or so, and re-reading a few sections, just to get situated in 18th century Britain again.

So hang on, come back or join in. I'm going to finish this book.

Monday, December 2, 2013

Lovelace finally gets it; Clarissa prepares for death

An extraordinary thing occurs on page 1,183 of "Clarissa," involving the rake Lovelace. After one thousand, one hundred and eighty-three pages of pursuing, stalking, haunting, violating and begging the title character to marry him, he finally acknowledges to his friend Jack Belford:

"I am now convinced, too sadly for my hopes ... that she is determined never to have me." 

It is an epic light bulb moment, and I was actually so excited about it that I shot it out on my Twitter feed to my adoring 483 followers, only to be yanked back into the rake's delusions on literally the next page:

"My heart is bent on having her. And have her, I will, though I marry here in the agonies of death."

For those who haven't read it, major spoiler in the next sentence, so continue (or not) with that in mind: Lovelace does not survive this book, I've known that for some time. But he doesn't know. When he thinks of his life being over, he is considering the fact that his family has banished him to one side of Lord M's mansion, and that he'll ultimately have to quit England.

Clarissa Harlowe will also die (I do not know how) but unlike Lovelace, who lives in an impregnable psychological fortress of denial, she does know it. In most of the letters she writes now, she alludes to the end being near. The shock of the rape itself has been overshadowed by the social stigma -- of the rape itself, of being excommunicated by her family, etc. One must recall the novel's first letter, a fact alluded to in literally the second line of text of a book containing, according to one estimate, 200,000 words more than the Bible:

"I am extremely concerned, my dearest friend, for the disturbances that have happened in your family. I know how it must hurt you to become the subject of the public talk; and yet, upon an occasion so generally known, it is impossible but that whatever relates to a young lady, whose distinguished merits have made her the public care, should engage everybody's attention."

This letter was written by Anna Howe to Clarissa (the italics are my own) and the occasion to which she refers is the physical altercation between James Harlowe, her brother, and Lovelace. Recall, too, that "everybody" in this context refers to the community of British high society, not literally everybody. Now that the occasion includes a kidnapping, a rape (one of Clarissa's uncles has gone so far to ask if she's carrying the child of the rapist) and being arrested, one can appreciate the depths of her despair. Thus, knowing that her end is near (religious beliefs are more prominent in these pages than earlier in the novel) she has asked Belford to be her executor. And yes, she appreciates the irony of entrusting not only her wealth, but her story -- her legacy -- to her rapist's best friend.

I know this book has been filmed, and I've not seen it. I intend to. One thing I'm curious about: The most important relationship in the book -- Clarissa and Anna -- is confined almost entirely to their letters. They are never in the same room together, or even the same city. How would you do that on screen? An interesting problem for a screenwriter.

Anyway: I'm on page 1,195, poised to read Letter #406.

Thursday, November 28, 2013

Social Class in Clarissa's World, and Ours

This morning's lead story in The Oregonian has been bugging me all day. For a week or so, I've been stewing over Black Friday, the sheer insanity of it, and how it (along with the rest of the holiday season) has continued its steady march backward on the calendar, to the point where one might reasonably anticipate that by the year 2023, Black Friday may land closer to Halloween than it is to Thanksgiving.

I'd become so indignant about America's death spiral of consumerism that it had eclipsed, albeit briefly, the plight of tens of millions of Americans who haven't pitched tents outside Old Navy, Target and Best Buy because they cannot afford to buy anything there. Which brings me to today's paper, which cited the case of a family in which the woman was laid off (in August) and her husband was working fewer hours as a grounds manager. In October, they got $37 in food stamps. This month, they got $14. Happy Thanksgiving.

The United States has long been divided along class lines, although we don't talk about it as much as they do across the pond, where Samuel Richardson's "Clarissa" plays out in Georgian England. But even though the novel was published a century before "The Communist Manifesto" and even forty years before the period during which E.P. Thompson described "The Making of the English Working Class," the world of Clarissa Harlowe is very much a class society, even if class struggle hadn't fully matured.

As the historian Roy Porter says in his short history of 18th century social life in Great Britain: "English society was a pyramid, with a few at the top and many at the bottom." Here's a breakdown, which he says is "clearly defective," but "suggestive":

1.2 percent - landowners: This would include virtually most of the book's main characters: Lovelace, of course, and the Harlowe family.
24.3 percent - farmers and freeholders
3.4 percent - professional, including clergy
3.7 percent - merchants and shopkeepers
4.4 percent - artisans and handicraftsmen
26.8 percent - laboring people and out-servants: We see a few of these people, particularly the servants to the Harlowe family and in the employ of Lovelace. Richardson occasionally has them write letters (if they can write at all) phonetically, with poor grammar and spelling.
29.4 percent - cottagers and paupers.
6.8 percent - the armed forces.

"It's society was capitalist, materialist, market-oriented; its temper worldly, pragmatic, responsive to economic forces," Porter writes. "Yet its political institutions and its distributions of wealth and power were unashamedly inegalitarian, hierarchical, hereditary and privileged."

There was a "vast" distinction in wealth between those at the top and the bottom. Again, rough numbers, but they provide a good sense of things. According to one calculation, the top 1.2 percent of the population possessed more than 14 percent of the nation's wealth. The bottom 67 percent possessed less than 30 percent of the wealth. By 1980, the top 1 percent owned 25 percent of all the personal wealth in England -- roughly the starting point for Margaret Thatcher, who believed that 25 percent was not enough.

Notwithstanding the fact that Richardson filled hundreds of pages with the most intimate thoughts of young women, he wrote what he knew, and what he knew was the life of the haves. Although Clarissa herself acknowledges the class divide on several occasions and even makes a few pointed criticisms of those at the top, the primary social struggle in British society, at least as she sees it and certainly as she experiences it, is that of men versus women. (Mary Wollstonecraft's "The Rights of Woman," tellingly, wouldn't be published for another 44 years). Although portrayals of wealth and privilege in "Clarissa" are mostly unflattering, this was Samuel Richardson writing in Georgian England, not Charles Dickens writing (a century later) in Victorian England.

A lengthy digression from an anecdote about food stamps in the today's newspaper, I realize, but these issues are never far from my thoughts. Social class reigns in Richardson's "Clarissa," even though class conflict remains subdued. And obviously, one need only pick up a paper or walk down a street - pretty much any street -- to see increasing signs of desperation. If anything, wealth inequality in 21st century America is even more appalling than it was in 18th century England. Time magazine recently featured New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie on its cover as the "elephant in the room" of American politics, but the real elephant is, and always has been, class. It's not just a British thing, and it's not going away. Watch.

Friday, November 8, 2013

A 'warm friend' in Belford

Given the fast square footage afforded by 1,500 pages -- a 20-foot square, assuming the 9-point type is retained -- I'd have thought it would take Belford more than a dozen or so pages to get in Clarissa's good graces, but that's what has happened. He has persuaded her to leave the jailer's house and has put her up in comfortable lodgings with a female attendant. He has also persuaded her to allow a doctor to attend her (a male), and he even inspires the following passage by Clarissa herself, to Howe:

"I am no prisoner now in a vile house. I am not now inn the power of that man's devices. I am not now obliged to hide myself in corners for fear of him. One of his intimate companions is become my warm friend, and engages to keep him from me, and that by his own consent."

So it comes to pass, then, that Belford -- identified by Richardson himself in the character guide as Lovelace's "closest confidant" -- has become Clarissa's "warm friend." Didn't see that coming. And it's not another of Lovelace's tricks.

I'm now in another long letter by Lovelace, in which he relates to Belford a conversation he has with Hickman (Howe's fiance). Hickman, the 18th century version of the pale, 90-pound weakling on a beach populated by bodybuilders, is dispatched to Lovelace to inquire as to whether he is really serious about doing right by Clarissa. (In my own view, this would mean that he never again comes within five miles of the woman and never writes to her, but this is 18th century Britain, and the unanimous consensus is that he should marry her). Howe is not convinced of this, as evidenced by his last letter to her. But Howe is also obviously on a fishing expedition; Clarissa has not alluded to every detail of Lovelace's crimes, so Hickman tries to draw this out of the rapist himself. It's an amusing conversation, actually; Hickman seems to gather strength as it proceeds. Most interestingly of all is this: Even though the two men are clearly talking about a violent sexual attack on a woman, the word "rape" is never used. The language keeps things all very dignified:

Hickman: "I have heard, sir, that the lady had strange advantages taken of her, very unfair ones; but what I cannot say."

Lovelace: "And cannot say? Cannot you guess? Then, I'll tell you. Perhaps some liberty was taken with her, while she was asleep. Do you think no lady ever was taken at such an advantage? You know, Mr. Hickman, that ladies are very shy of trusting themselves with the modestest of our sex, when they are disposed to sleep; and why so, if they did not expect that advantages would be taken of them at times?"

Hickman: "But sir, had not the lady something given her to make her sleep?"

Lovelace: "Ay, Mr. Hickman, that's the question: I want to know if the lady says she had?"

Hickman: "I have not seen all she has written; but by what I have heard, it is a very black affair -- excuse me, sir."

Lovelace: "I do excuse you, Mr. Hickman. But supposing it were so, do you think a lady was never imposed upon by wine?"

And so on and so forth.

This goes on for many pages, and I'm still in the middle of it. I fell short of my goal the other day of hitting page 1,100, but I'll surely pass by it today: I'm on page 1,095. A friend yesterday observed: "You're actually going to read this fucking thing!"

Yes, indeed. I am going to read this fucking thing. However, as she then pointed out, my reading of "Clarissa," particularly this year, has come at the expense of putting aside a lot of books I very much want to read, books that aren't part of this literary stunt. But on the other hand, it is also likely true that even if I'd read a dozen non-fiction books this year in addition to "Clarissa," the experience of reading Richardson's novel  is probably the one I'll remember 20 years from now.

No regrets. Onward! 

Tuesday, November 5, 2013

'Let me never, never more believe in man!'

Clarissa Harlowe's incarceration -- which, in one form or another, basically comprises Samuel Richardson's entire 1,500-page novel -- is now confined to a single room, a bedroom converted into a cell, with bars on the window, in the home of Rowland, the police officer who arrested her. It's basically a holding cell while authorities await the payment of bail, or before the prisoner is dispatched to an actual prison. But for someone who has grown up in the privileged environment as has our Clarissa, this is the anteroom of Hell. 

Mrs. Sinclair, the owner of the brothel where much of Clarissa's imprisonment took place, has her arrested as she walks out of a church. The charge is that she owes her 150 pounds for her stay, which Lovelace is apparently no longer responsible for, because Sinclair knows they are not married. And they (presumably) know she comes from wealth. This happens in front of a large crowd, and the humiliation factor is high. 

Clarissa's hatred of Lovelace has quickly transformed into terror in the presence of men, all men. This is not unreasonable, given her circumstances. Consider the parade of men we've met in this book, from the opening pages: Her supremely arrogant brother; her dictatorial father; the odious Solmes, Captain Tomlinson, (or whatever is name really is) and then the "rake" Lovelace, who kidnapped, imprisoned, drugged and raped her -- and had hoped to do so a second time.

She appears to be bent on suicide by starvation at this point. She refuses to eat, or remove her clothes for any reason. She refuses to stand when visitors (the women of Mrs. Sinclair's house) arrive; given a supply of paper, pen and ink, she refuses to write. She sleeps sitting, with the back of the chair against the door, which she cannot lock. She knows her days are numbered, and appears to have made peace with it.

It is into this toxic physical and psychological space that Jack Belford arrives, having unraveled the circumstances of her arrest, and attempts to rescue her. 


"I dare not approach you, dearest lady, without your leave: but on my knees I beseech you to permit me to release you from this damned house, and out of the power of the accursed woman who was the occasion of your being here!"


"And in whose to place me? Oh leave me, leave me! Let me never more rise from this spot! Let me never, never more believe in man!"

She will not leave with Belford's help because:

 " ... [T]o the friend of my destroyer I will not own an obligation."

It is a powerful scene and a striking exchange. One cannot help but feel that both are entirely justified in their positions. As for Belford, he is clearly angered and ashamed by what Clarissa has come to thanks to Lovelace, and his contempt for Lovelace on full display in his long letter to him: 

"Why, Lovelace, was thou not present thyself? Why does thou commit such villainies as even thou thyself art afraid to appear in?"

He breaks off in his letter at a point where the reader is desperate to know what happens next; he does this because he know it will anger Lovelace, and figures he deserves a taste of his own medicine, as it was his own habit to leave Belford hanging at the end of a letter.

"...I will make thee taste in they turn of the plague of suspense; and break off, without giving thee the least hint of the issue of my further proceedings. I know that those least bear disappointment who love most to give it."

Lovelaces replies, tellingly, with a comment that speaks volumes about his perspective:

"Curse upon they hard heart, thou vile caitiff! How has thou tortured me by thy designed abruption! 'Tis impossible that Miss Harlowe should have ever suffered as thou has made me suffer, and as I now suffer!"

Really? Seriously?

It's not about Clarissa, you understand. It's about him

Sunday, November 3, 2013

The World Closes in on Clarissa Harlowe

It surely says something about the social mores of 18th century Britain that after Lovelace is subjected to his family's wrath for the rape of Clarissa Harlowe and all the deceptions that led to it -- an act that understandably has her wishing never to be in his presence again -- they decide that the only possible way to redeem himself is to ... marry her. If for no other reason, to keep things quiet.

Lady Betty Lawrence and Miss Montague are dispatched to Clarissa's best friend to see if she will make this proposal for them. I had expected a curt "no," or at the very least, resistance. It does not happen. Howe, who only a few pages ago was urging Clarissa to have Lovelace prosecuted for rape, changes her tune quickly:

"I have no doubt to advise you my dear, and so does my mother, instantly to put yourself into Lady Betty's protection, with a resolution to take the wretch for your husband. All his future grandeur (he wants not pride) depends upon his sincerity to you. 

... you must oblige them: the alliance is splendid and honorable. Very few will know anything about the brutal baseness to you. All must end in a little while in a genteel reconciliation."

And so it comes to this: Clarissa has lost Anna Howe. 

Clarissa then disappears. The reason for this becomes clear a few letters later, with the story relayed by Belford, to Lovelace. In the heat of the moments following her escape, Lovelace issued orders that his "bride" be arrested. It seems that Mrs. Sinclair followed through and had her tracked down herself. Clarissa has spent the first thousand pages of the novel behind bars in a figurative sense; now the bars are real. 

Page 1,053 ... onward!

Wednesday, October 30, 2013

Lovelace's World Unravels

"A devil! A damned devil! I must answer. And may the curse of God follow you in all you undertake, if you do not make her the best amends now in your power to make her!" 

-- Lord M., to his nephew Robert Lovelace, upon hearing of his crimes against Clarissa Harlowe

At a certain level, one can understand Lovelace's rape of Clarissa Harlowe. It is a horrible, violent act, a crime of passion, and clearly planned in advance. Savage and inexcusable, the act of a morally bankrupt human being. 

But given the overwhelming power men exerted over women at the time, given the legal standing of women in 18th British society, and given the reluctance of women (then as well as now) to subject themselves to the legal machinery of the state (run by men) in an effort to see justice done, one can understand how me might have assumed that this was a crime he could and would get away with. That's the part I get. 

What I do not understand is the elaborate lengths to which Lovelace went in order to pin her down to Mrs. Sinclair's house, deceptions and lies involving other people. Specifically, the ruse which he surely must have known would be discovered by all eventually: Hiring two women to impersonate his cousins, who helped lure her away from the relative safety of the in at Hampsted back to the Sinclair brothel. How could he have not known that this act of deception would eventually become known to the cousins who were impersonated? What was he thinking? He might have gotten away with "Captain Tomlinson," but to drag his own relatives into it? Is idiocy an integral part of the mind of a sociopath?

Of course, they do learn. Once tucking herself away in a trusted shopkeeper's store, Clarissa sets about contacting her friends -- Anna Howe, obviously, but also Lady Betty and Miss Montague. She asks them: Did you meet me at Hampsted? Did you write this letter to me? Do you know a Captain Tomlinson?

Lady Betty responds: She did not write the letter; she's never heard of Tomlinson, and she's not been to Hampstead in years. 

Clarissa has pieced together everything. In an initially tense and awkward exchange with her best friend, she unravels the mess; she realizes that fleeing to Hampstead caused her to miss, by a few hours, the one letter from Howe that would have tipped her off that Tomlinson was a fraud; she knows that Lovelace stole the letter, and she knows that he forged letters both to her and Howe. She knows these things, and a dozen other ruses orchestrated by Lovelace.

Howe is encouraging Clarissa to have Lovelace prosecuted; her mother has gone one step further: The condition of her allowing her daughter to continue to correspond with Clarissa is that she seek legal action. 

Meanwhile, Lovelace's family has also pieced together the lies, and they confront him about it; the two cousins, along with Lord M., his wealthy uncle, who is literally about to drop dead from illness. It's getting hot. The letters are getting shorter, and the narrative isn't (at present) dominated by a single voice, which makes it more of a page-turner, and it's literally difficult to put down. I finally stopped reading last night about 11 p.m. simply because I need my sleep. Right now I'm in the middle of the Lovelace family shitstorm, which includes the quote above. 

Good reading. I'm on page 1,031 -- uncharted territory for me in any book. I'm sure I've never read any volume more than five or six hundred pages. I'm starting to hungrily eye other books around the house, books I've been putting off so I can read this, books I'd not started before because I thought I could not follow through or didn't have time. Because I thought they were "too long."

No more. 

I will finish this book before my birthday in November. Period. 

Tuesday, October 29, 2013

Clarissa escapes, and I hit 1,000 pages

Some good reading this week. Clarissa finally escaped the clutches of Robert Lovelace, whose courtship of the young lady had effectively become no different than kidnapping, and in a series of exchanges with Mrs. Norton (her former nurse), Anna Howe and others, she's also unraveled the series of lies, deceptions, tricks and forgeries Lovelace used in order to imprison her. She's hiding in a glove shop -- the circumstances aren't clear, but I imagine she's tucked away in an attic like Anne Frank -- and piecing together Lovelace's plot letter by letter.

I cleared 1,000 pages this week, and the final 500 pages looks considerably slimmer than I would have regarded 500 pages of 18th century British prose before embarking on this insane project. I desperately want to finish this before my birthday at the end of November, because I intend to spend December with some escapist (but smart) science fiction and fantasy. I haven't settled on an author yet ... possibly Clive Barker. Or Neal Stephenson. Or Kim Stanley Robinson.

There have been some thrilling moments over the last 40 pages or so. It was not until Clarissa pointed a knife at her own heart and declared that "the LAW!" would be her refuge from Lovelace that Mrs. Sinclair, the owner of the brothel where she's been imprisoned, conceded that perhaps it would be "better to make terms with this strange lady, and let her go." We learn a few pages later, in a letter from Lovelace to Belford, that had it not been for the threat of suicide, he had planned to "have been her companion for that night."

In Lovelace, one sees the architecture of a self-absorbed sociopath's mind: Even after everything that has happened, after all of Clarissa's forceful, tearful declarations that she wants nothing more to do with Lovelace ever again for the rest of her life, he is incapable of letting a few minutes pass without issuing some variation of, "But my dearest life! Say that you will oblige me and make Thursday my happy day!" She hates him. She loathes him. And yet he is convinced -- he has convinced himself -- that he will marry her and all will be well. This is not a rational human being.

Upon learning that Clarissa escaped -- disguised as one of the women of the house -- Lovelace explodes:

"I am ruined, undone, blown-up, destroyed, and worse than annihilated, that's certain!"

This isn't entirely self-pity. In some sense, he will be destroyed. Cut off, possibly, from the more rational members of his wealthy family, when they learn to what outrageous lengths he went to to imprison a woman he claimed he had already married, but in fact had not. This is dishonesty akin to what you find regularly in American politics, degraded as it is, from both parties: Truth is whatever you happen to say out loud, as long as you believe it's true, or at least ought to be true.

And so I read on. Currently, I'm in 15-page or so section in which Clarissa describes an incident that was only alluded to in a few lines earlier -- her meeting with Lovelace's cousins, or rather, the women Lovelace hired to portray them, to trick her. Just off the top of my head, Lovelace has had at least a dozen or so people in his employ for the purpose of deceiving his "dearest life." A toxic mix of money and power. Or, as Anna Howe puts it:

"To have money, and will, and head, to be a villain, is too much for the rest of the world when they meet in one man."

I'll finish off with an illustration of how vast this book is: Shakespeare's "Hamlet" comprises 3,834 lines of text. Homer's epic "The Iliad" is nearly 16,000 lines of verse. Richardson's "Clarissa" is, by my rough estimate, runs more than 60,000 lines.

Monday, October 21, 2013

Literary Distractions

As long as I am chronicling my reading of the fattest novels of all time, I should note for the record those occasions when I allow myself to be distracted from the book (Samuel Richardson's 'Clarissa' at the moment) and sample some other text. A primary motivation for doing this in the first place, after all, was to discipline my reading so that I wouldn't do that -- leaving a book unfinished because I picked up two or three others. And I suppose it's some measure of my progress that instead of grabbing a book and reading only the first dozen pages, it's a relatively easy matter now to quickly knock off 100 or more pages in something else before I lose interest, or force myself back into 18th century Britain. 

Even so, given that I'm closing in on the 1,000th page of 'Clarissa' and desperately want to finish this before my birthday in November, it makes absolutely no sense, none whatsoever, that I would bother even going to the library to peek at the new arrivals shelf, which for me is like sampling the finest chocolates in the candy store. 

And it's even more irrational that I would check out not one, not two, but three books: Edward O. Wilson's "Letters to a Young Scientist," (244 pages) the hardcover edition of Jeff Smith's graphic novel "Rasl" (472 pages) and "Denial: Self-Deceptions, False Beliefs and the Origins of the Human Mind," by Ajit Varki and Danny Brower (384 pages). This seems particularly insane given that I just started reading chapter two of  Louis Herman's meandering "Future Primal: How Our Wilderness Origins Show Us the Way Forward."

At least they've not gone to waste, stuffed away in my backpack buried under a pile of clothes: I'm about halfway through the first two volumes and will very likely finish them in the next couple of days, because they're both really good and they're obviously fast reads. Which means I won't be reading 'Clarissa' today or tomorrow. Which, given the Reading Everest mission, is self-defeating. 

I keep telling myself I'm not the only one. A lot of readers do this. Buying books, not reading them. Checking them out of the library, not even opening them. I saw statistics on this somewhere a few years ago, although it seems like that would be an awfully difficult thing to accurately gauge. 

Still, it's difficult to regret too much picking them up. "Rasl" afforded me a pleasant hour or so over the weekend, and Wilson's book is interesting and inspiring -- and it even prompted me to jot down some notes that relate directly to my Reading Everest project. 

And so I read merrily on ... just not what I'm "supposed" to read. I'm okay with it. Mostly. 

Thursday, October 17, 2013

Clarissa Harlowe, Prisoner

I had to put down 'Clarissa' for a few days, which turned into a couple weeks, looks like. I didn't mean for that to happen, but I peeked ahead and saw that I had another 50 pages of narrative attributed to the villain, Lovelace, and I just wasn't up for it. He is an increasingly unpleasant literary companion, and I miss the voice of Clarissa Harlowe. I spent some time with Louis Herman's "Future Primal: How Our Wilderness Origins Show Us the Way Forward." 

I returned to 'Clarissa' tonight. 

She attempts an escape, but is unsuccessful. The women of the house (this is a brothel, remember) literally swarm her at the door, barring her exit. Her screams arouse the attention of passersby, including a constable, who enters demanding to see the woman in distress. But Lovelace thinks fast on his feet: Another woman is offered up as the victim, to assure the authorities that she is unharmed. 

Now Lovelace is back in Clarissa's chamber, and the exchange is explosive:


"I renounce thee for ever, Lovelace! -- Abhorred of my soul! for ever I renounce thee! Seek thy fortunes wheresoever thou wilt! -- only now, that thou has ruined me!"


"If you would think yourself in my power, I would caution you, madam, not to make me desperate. For you shall be mine, or my life shall be the forfeit! ... let me tell you, were the house beset by a thousand armed men resolved to take you from me, they should not effect their purpose while I had life!"

It's curious that Richardson chooses to present Lovelace's narrative as a single, long letter to his friend Jack Belford. It's difficult to imagine, frankly, that someone like this would be so open about these things with another person -- particularly when it's now evident that Belford is appalled by Lovelace's behavior. Consider this line Lovelace writes to Belford:

"If I give up on my contrivances, my joy in stratagem, and plot and invention, I shall be but a common man; such another dull heavy creature as thyself."

Why isn't this material presented as an entry in a personal journal? It seems to me that people who love writing as much as these two would keep a journal. Surely they must. At the very least, Clarissa must. If memory serves, I believe she's actually referred to it. Why did Richardson choose to rely exclusively upon letters?

Thursday, October 3, 2013

45 books, 7,500 pages

On Sept. 1, I started keeping a record of our 4-year-old son's reading and television activity. I was motivated primarily by an interest in cutting down Silas's screen time. Not that he was watching a lot to begin with, but I was starting to feel like I was sometimes unnecessarily using it as a crutch. Generally, we aimed for one hour a day, and absolutely no more than two hours. I'd have to double-check, but I think is the maximum recommended by the American Pediatrics Association for kids his age. 

I'd read about these studies showing that children were spending as much as six, seven even eight hours a day parked in front of a screen of one kind or another -- a television, a computer, an iPad, etc. I have heard of children Silas's age who have already been turned loose on computer games. My wife usually uses a short YouTube video of to direct his attention when she's brushing his teeth (although that's about to change, because he's starting to brush his own teeth) but no games. 

I'm hardly a Luddite, but we're going to hold off on computer games for a few years at least. I'm sure he will play them eventually, but now is the time to cultivate an interest in reading, and to allow plenty of time for imaginative play, creative play. 

So, at any rate, I started writing everything down. I counted the pages in the books I read to him -- and understand ... these are picture books, so some pages might have no text at all. So the range was from board books with a picture and a sentence or two all the way up to a book like "Horton Hears a Who," which takes me about 17 minutes to read aloud. If we read the book again, I counted those pages again. We're talking pages that his eyes passed over during reading.

Regarding TV, I didn't lay down any new rules. I just steered him in different directions. "Can I watch TV?" was a question I heard several times a day, every day. I'd start to respond: "Not right now, let's make a pillow fort." It became easier and easier to get his mind off the prospect of television.

So, the grand totals for the month:

We read 45 books, most of them multiple times, some of them a dozen times or more. The most he read any single book was "The Tale of Squirrel Nutkin," by Beatrix Potter. In fairness, I finally resorted to an audio book for that one. Thank God for Jim Weiss. (I counted audio books only if he had the book in front of him and followed along from start to finish.)  

We read more than 7,500 pages.

I am not including the time he spent by himself with a book. I didn't even try to tabulate that. Too difficult. But I'm sure you could add several hundred more pages to the mix, and several more hours with a book in his lap.

Most interesting of all, he watched only 5 hours of television. During the four weeks of Sept. 1-28, he watched TV on only eight days. Twenty days with no television at all. And (this is the part I find most interesting) increasingly, he simply stopped asking. The longest stretch was six straight days with no TV. On most of those days, he expressed no interest in watching. A fascinating dynamic became very clear to me: The more TV he watched, the more he wanted to watch. The less he watched, the less he wanted to watch.

For every action, there is an opposite and equal reaction. I was generally more tired at the end of the day, and I developed a sore throat from so much reading aloud. 

But that's all worth it, because clearly, he is teaching himself to read. 

Wednesday, October 2, 2013

Reading All Over the Place

I'm taking a break from 'Clarissa' this evening, mostly because I need a break from the preening asshole Lovelace. Will return tomorrow.

I have other books going, of course. I am always reading. Too much, probably. Enough to possibly ruin the entire purpose of Reading Everest, which was to focus on a book. To read nothing else but that book, and finish it. I now know I'll finish 'Clarissa,' which is the longest single volume in the Reading Everest project. But my endless curiosity about other things, coupled with my capacity for distraction, necessitates that I am also reading other books.

I'm on page 230 of Stephen Greenblatt's "Will in the World: How Shakespeare Became Shakespeare." Interesting stuff, but I've grown weary of the speculation, the endless parade of phrases like "perhaps he thought," "might possibly have," "could have," "probably would have," "may have," etc. I may finish it, and possibly I won't. 

I finished "Against Schooling: For an Education that Matters," by Stanley Aronwitz, and just started a collection of essays entitled "Education and Capitalism: Struggles for Learning and Liberation," edited by Jeff Bale and Sarah Knopp.

I read an essay about Thelonius Monk in Jack Newfield's "American Rebels." 

Books read with my 4-year-old lately have included a lot of Beatrix Potter. (And let me just say that it is really embarrassing to be reading a Potter book to a 4-year old and encounter a word that you don't recognize and can't pronounce.) Last month we read around 40 books together, most of them multiple times, and some a dozen times or more. Tonight my wife brought home a very belated birthday gift (for him) from a former co-worker that we both enjoyed: "Steam Train, Dream Train," by Sherri Duskey Rinker and Tom Lichtenheld. We read that three times before dinner. I've been leaving a copy of David Wiesner's wordless "Sector 7" laying around, but so far it hasn't spoken to him. Give me Wiesner or the artwork of Nicoletta Ceccoli any day over "Clifford the Big Red Dog" or Marc Brown's "Arthur" books.

I was at the library earlier this week and picked up Louis G. Herman's "Future Primal: How Our Wilderness Origins Show Us the Way Forward." 

Starting next week, I pick up an extra hour of reading time: Walter White is dead and "Breaking Bad" is done. A fascinating series, one that will be studied for a long time.