Learning English literature

AE35Unit

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I never studied English lit at school, I don't ever remember covering it at all. Instead, probably because I was incredibly nervous and quiet, I got put in the bottom class of Eng.lang, even though my level of English grammar and spelling was of a high level (I was top speller in my class, people would come to me when they wanted something spelling)
Anyway, I never read classic literature, I don't ever remember reading Those Certain Books that everyone says they had to read at school (To Kill a Mockingbird, Cider with Rosie, Catcher in the Rye etc) and still haven't (though I have Cider on my bookshelf now).
But as an adult, I am interested in early works such as Dickens, Hardy, George Eliot etc, but when I do I find myself struggling to understand what the author is saying, even now, with me reading for the umpteenth time, A Christmas Carol there are passages when I just haven't a clue. Is there a site/resource etc for an old fart like me to learn such stuff. I do like Dickens especially but it is such a struggle at times. Forget Shakespeare ;)
 
What is it that you're finding difficult in the older works -- sentence structure/convoluted sentences or the words themselves?

If it's the complexity of the sentences, then all I can suggest is taking them slowly and unpicking them -- sometimes it can help to remove sub-clauses (those within commas) to get the nub of it. Alternatively, why not copy out the offending passages and ask for help here?

If it's the words, a good dictionary will help -- I use Collins online which is fine, though doesn't always have the more esoteric words. For names and the like -- the older authors tend to use names from antiquity and the Bible in the confident assumption that their readers will understand exactly who eg Bathsheba was and why it's appropriate to mention her in connection with bathing or lust -- then Google is your friend. But again, if you get nowhere, ask here. You could have your own thread -- "AE35's literary questions"!!
 
What is it that you're finding difficult in the older works -- sentence structure/convoluted sentences or the words themselves?
Well I think its just a case of temporal semantics-how phrases change over time, (it was only recently that I discovered the old meaning of the word But)
but sometimes there is some contextual issue which, once understood allows the reader to make sense of the phrase.
Couple of examples here.
What is meant by 'Change? Exchange? If so I still don't get it.
Also in the second example I had absolutely no idea what he was saying, but my partner made it clear to me. He was simply saying that if the world had come to an end, his financial difficulties would no longer be important.
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This is not something that I would recommend for 19th century doorstop novels such as Dickens, George Eliot etc, but the thing that made the old English poetry click for me was to read it aloud. When I first tried reading Paradise Lost it was all blibs and blobs, as Uncle Albert would say. But when I read it aloud it was like an epiphany - suddenly 90% of the passages made sense. And I didn't read it in a thundering, Brian Blessed-style declamation - often it was barely more than a whisper. The important thing was that my body was involved - there's something about poetry in particular, with its rhythms and cadences, that invites embodiment and acting. Again, when you hear or speak Shakespeare the meanings come alive.

I'm not saying you should read Great Expectations aloud, but it may help to read out loud some of the trickier passages where you're getting stuck.

Don't forget to listen to the Chrons podcast from next month - there will be a slant towards literary discussions of works, even when they sit in the SFFH. Hopefully they'll help give you some understanding of how the great writers pack meaning into phrases, whether they look innocuous or daunting.

But more than anything, keep reading. The 19th century novelists are held up to be the high watermark of literature for a reason.

EDIT: BTW the first passage you're referring to, is indeed a shorthand for Exchange; I suppose used by city gents of the day. The second passage you're referring to is another demonstration of Scrooge's miserliness - he counts the days to measure what his money is doing, and if there are "no days to count by" then the value of his money diminishes.
 
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I do sometimes read aloud but in the above cases it didn't help. I just went over and over it and that just made the following sentences more elusive. I'm afraid I can't do podcasts, same reason I can't do audio books. It just doesn't 'go in' the same as when reading
 
In that case the only thing to say is to stick at it, and get used to the turns of phrase used by these authors. Anyway, the main meaning from these stories isn't to be derived from the minutiae of the individual sentences; it's to be derived from the story as a whole. Why else would A Christmas Carol remain unsurpassable as the secular Christmas story?

In time the sometime peculiar or archaic phrasing will become clearer.

The last thing to note (and this isn't against your OP, just a general observation) is that it's disingenuous to assume that these texts were written for the elites, or the highly educated, or were in any case "not for the masses." Dickens was extraordinarily popular in his own day, and serialised in the papers - he would have been accessible to the man in the street, and the stories go that when a new episode was published, dock workers would queue around the block at St Katherine's to get hold of the paper. IMO that's not to say that the man in the street may have necessarily understood every single sentence or reference, but understood the story enough to appreciate its full splendour.
 
I found the same thing with Treasure Island, which was written in the 19th century and is set among sailors in 1750 or so. There were a lot of times where a phrase would stop me - a sailor "spat his quid" during a conversation, which threw me until I vaguely remembered the phrase "a quid of tobacco" and figured that he was using the spittoon. That's not complex sentence structure, just unfamiliar expressions.

Something like Brewer's Dictionary of Phrase and Fable might help, likewise a dictionary with antiquated expressions. I've also seen lists of old slang on the internet, for 17th century criminals and for 1940s film noir stories.

There are also points where you can figure out the rough meaning of a phrase from its context and move on without knowing the precise details of what was going on. "Scrooge's name was good upon 'Change" sounds from the context to mean something like "Scrooge covered the costs", "Scrooge's name was on the bills" or "Scrooge's name carried sufficient weight". The trouble with that approach is (a) I might be wrong and (b) I've no idea what the second example means.
 
I am firmly of the belief that literature should be interesting, and ideally fun and enjoyable. The danger is picking up something that you think you should read and getting discouraged because it is impenetrable.

It is acceptable to find famous authors oppressive or boring or unlikeable.

Advice: Don't get bogged down on the minutiae, or the subtexts you think you might be missing. Enjoy the book and the story and the characters. Try to keep the reading flowing as you would with a modern novel. Think about it afterwards if you want.

There's usually some really good discussion/documentary on Youtube. Some of the good costume dramas are worth watching.

Some 19th century lit (admittedly late C19th) is written in very accessible prose:

Oscar Wilde
Conan Doyle
HG Wells
Kipling
Jerome K Jerome

Earlier stuff can get more difficult for the reasons you point out. Jane Austen is OK, mainly because she is funny and her characters are human. In translation both Candide and Madame Bovary are great (and very short, which helps, tbh.)


Oh, and Cider With Rosie. Bored me at school. Picked it up quite randomly as an adult and absolutely loved it, and its sequels.
 
Yes, "'Change" is short for for "the Exchange" ie where stocks would be sold and general money matters dealt with, which was the casual way it was referred to by those who used it -- every trade and profession has its jargon to separate those in the know from those outside. "Scrooge's name was good" means he can be trusted, his word can be relied upon, and "he chose to put his hand to" simply means anything he signs, though to my eye there is also an overtone that if he's chosen to put his money into a venture there's going to be profit in it, so that if others follow him they might make money, too.



Your partner hasn't quite got this right. The bit in inverted commas would be a line from a Bill of Exchange ie similar to "pay the bearer on demand" which we still have on our bank notes, except the payment is delayed for three days after it's produced and payment is demanded. A security is a financial asset, eg a bond or a bank note, and a US security at the time was presumably of little or no value (or at least chauvinistically thought to be so by the English bankers) perhaps because they couldn't be trusted. So if the world was ending, then what would ordinarily be eg a valuable promissory note would be worthless not least because there wouldn't be the three days in which to get his hands on the payment.

I'd agree with hitmouse and Dan that literature is to be enjoyed, not fretted over, so getting the general gist and tenor of the work is more important than fretting over every word -- if we were required to understand every single thing I'd never read any SF!
 
Your partner hasn't quite got this right. The bit in inverted commas would be a line from a Bill of Exchange ie similar to "pay the bearer on demand" which we still have on our bank notes, except the payment is delayed for three days after it's produced and payment is demanded. A security is a financial asset, eg a bond or a bank note, and a US security at the time was presumably of little or no value (or at least chauvinistically thought to be so by the English bankers) perhaps because they couldn't be trusted. So if the world was ending, then what would ordinarily be eg a valuable promissory note would be worthless not least because there wouldn't be the three days in which to get his hands on the payment.

I'd agree with hitmouse and Dan that literature is to be enjoyed, not fretted over, so getting the general gist and tenor of the work is more important than fretting over every word -- if we were required to understand every single thing I'd never read any SF!
Actually my partner got it right, because she googled the paragraph and got the same explanation as you. (It was the US part that foxed me, her search explained that)
 
Oh I've tried reading an Oscar Wild book, Picture of Dorian Grey. Bored me to tears. Please tell me he has written better!
One author I have enjoyed is Jack London, White Fang and Call of the Wild, just brilliant.
Also enjoyed Lord of the Flies by William Golding.
 
Actually my partner got it right, because she googled the paragraph and got the same explanation as you. (It was the US part that foxed me, her search explained that)
Ah, since you had glossed it as "his financial difficulties would no longer be important" -- which is wholly wrong, since he was in no financial difficulty, and he's instead comparing valuable assets to worthless ones -- I assumed that was how it had been explained to you.
 
If it's something that is or was a set exam text, maybe buy the version with notes for modern students? Things like your "'Change" would certainly be explained in one of those.
 
HareBrain's right -- an edition with notes will often be helpful. Used copies of Penguin Classics and Oxford World's Classics may be had inexpensively from outfits such as abebooks.com if they can't be sourced locally. Norton Critical Editions can be good too. Public libraries should have such books or be able to get them through interlibrary loan services.

AE, the array of threads devoted to good old books under the Literary Fiction rubric here at Chrons shows an enthusiasm there can be infectious and an encouragement to persist if there are momentary frustrations.

For me, this kind of reading is a combination of professional activity (except that I'm now retired), scholarly endeavor, and certainly the kid set loose in the candy shop.

Here's the candy shop:

 
My parental library, when I was learning to read, was packed with "Classics" of every sort. There was no TV in the house, so I had little to do but read everything I could grab, in huge amounts.

I was more interested in the progression of the plot than in grokking every detail at first sight. I learned that I didn't need to understand the precise meaning of every unfamiliar word, or phrase. Usually the gist of the definition is evident from context. With patience, there will be more clues to the context as well. (and if you care enough, you can always pick up the dictionary...later)

The "Christmas Carol" example is a perfect illustration:

I immediately picked up the apostrophe in " 'Change" and, yes, "Exchange" is a reasonable extrapolation. The Capital C indicates that it's a proper noun. Knowing that Scrooge is some sort of financial broker; it is further reasonable to extrapolate that the Exchange is some sort of Financial institution. Close enough for now. Carrying on, keeping the "Movie" moving in my minds eye and the inferences clicking away somewhere in the back of my head. And just a few paragraphs later, viola, here are another pack of clues to help fill in the context. (where the underlining is.)
 
If it's something that is or was a set exam text, maybe buy the version with notes for modern students? Things like your "'Change" would certainly be explained in one of those.
Is that what Cliff's Notes books are? To be honest I wouldn't fancy all the jumping back and forward, reading the notes. Its bad enough with Terry Pratchett's footnotes, albeit they're funny
 
Cliff's Notes, I believe, give more than help with words whose meanings have changed, etc.; they provide a detailed summary that approaches being a substitute for your own interaction with the original.

The notes in a Penguin Classics won't generally require more than a few seconds' attention, actually reducing the amount of time away from reading the original if you pause to try to work out the meaning on your own, I imagine.

But you might be surprised by how quickly you can get the hang of reading non-current books. I basically agree with Alex's comment above.

I encouraged my students to read the original classic books -- the ones assigned in class and others they might choose on their own -- rather than reading about literature.

But occasionally you might like to look at some books about books. I think it is best, as a rule of thumb, to avoid the ones published in the past 40 years or so, because of the ascendancy during that time of agenda-driven commentaries and the arising of esoteric theory.

Here are a few books I've found helpful & that I can recommend if and when you want some discussion on their topics.

Lewis's The Discarded Image, an introduction to literature of the Middle Ages and the Renaissance.

Chute's Stories from Shakespeare. Harbage's Shakespeare: A Reader's Guide. Bethell's Shakespeare and the Popular Dramatic Tradition is more advanced than the other books on Shakespeare listed here, but it was a lightbulb-switched-on book for me.

Cockshut's The Imagination of Charles Dickens.

Allen's The English Novel.
 
I don't fancy Shakespeare. Or rather, one does not cast fair light upon such a prospect as reading Shakespeare
Maybe Marlowe's "mighty line" might be more appealing? :) If I recall correctly, I was confused by the adulation of Shakespeare but when I read Marlowe's Tamburlaine, I loved it. It also had the side effect of letting me appreciate Shakespeare more even if they're very different and even if my appreciation still doesn't go as far as the worship he often receives. It's like that with music a lot - I don't really get into something until one right thing makes the rest click. (Though, of course, some stuff is just not for me regardless and I'm confident that a lot of stuff is simply bad.)
 
If your problem is unfamiliar words, that will become less and less of a problem the more classic literature you read. You will learn new (old) words as you go along, and when you come across them in other novels of the same period you won't have to think twice about what they mean. Also, the more clues you pick up about things that were everyday matters in the period you are reading about, the easier it will be to figure out such words in context, without even having to look them up.
 

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