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What I'm Reading (No. 82): Les Mis + fic/non-fic classics
I finally finished Les Miserables! A couple months and 1,432 pages later, I closed my weighty hardcover and felt rather accomplished.
I also have some thoughts about fiction vs non-fiction classics, and why the former gets all the attention.
Let's do it.
Les Miserables by Victor Hugo (1862, 1,432 pages)
The story is one that most people probably know the outlines of: Jean Valjean is an escaped convict trying forever to fend off policeman Javert; Marius and Cosette offer up one of the great love stories of all-time; the ongoing French Revolution takes place in the background.
And yet, if you're like me, it's possible you had only ever encountered the musical version, in which it's sort of hard to get the details of the story amidst all that lovely singing.
To read the original work (albeit in translation from French) is an astounding reading experience.
The characters are so vivid and you're with them for so long, that they feel like family by the end. Much of the cast is in caricature; Jean Valjean is the definition of good, Cosette is the definition of innocent, Thenardier is the definition of . . . not evil, but perhaps maliciousness and selfishness. There aren't much in the way of character complexities to deal with, which I actually appreciated. Today's literature is rife with unlikeable protagonists who are forced into gray areas because it's more "real."
Anyways, the writing is resplendent; while I normally abhor referencing dictionary definitions, it's so appropriate here: "attractive and impressive through being richly colorful."
As with all literature considered to be "classic," the themes are universal and timeless. Even 160 years later, I was utterly touched by Jean Valjean's relationship with Fantine and then Cosette. The descriptions of Marius and Cosette falling in love were downright electric in the most innocent, 19th century way possible. Society's ills, and how we treat the downtrodden, were all too familiar. Ultimately, it's a book that's all about love and grace — giving it, receiving it, and seeing it in everyone.
Now for the hard parts: there are a lot of diversions. Lengthy ones. Dozens of pages each on the Battle of Waterloo, convents in France, the sewer system of Paris. What's more, there is literally no plot progression in these sections, outside of the final paragraph or even final sentence. But that also makes it easy to skim through these sections, which I did plenty of.
Also, its sheer length (and physical weight if reading a paper copy) makes it a challenge. By the end, although I was still in love with the characters and the writing, I also just wanted to arrive at the finish line. It's a book that requires endurance.
But, it was well worth it. I know I'm going to want to read it again in 10 or 20 years. (And maybe not skim the diversions, which were still beautifully written.) Les Miserables is absolutely a new favorite book. The story is as beautiful as you'll ever read.
Fiction vs. Non-Fiction Classics
When it comes to reading the classics, by far the lion's share of attention goes to novels. I get why this is — they often read quicker (thank you, dialogue), are written in a way as to entertain rather than inform, and contain those universal and timeless themes I mentioned above. Memoirs and history books from 50, 100, 150 years ago are now historical documents themselves. Really, I get it.
But my own reading reality is that I'm a bit more of a non-fic guy than a novel guy. Of the roughly 60 books I've read this year, only 20 have been novels. Now, I love novels plenty, it's just harder for fiction to capture my attention. I'm pretty selective. Non-fic, on the other hand, is easier for me to get through, even when dry and boring by other people's standards; if I'm learning something, I'm engaged.
Because of this, I've sort of gotten myself on a course to try to read classic works of non-fiction. Sometimes the writing can be sort of dull (which can also be applied to plenty of classic fiction), but oftentimes it's as masterful and engaging as any novel. And even when old non-fic books seem outdated or are ultimately shown to be inaccurate, the themes can be equally timeless and engaging. You can't read a classic Civil War history without seeing a resonance to our modern times. You can't read Helen Keller's memoir without being inspired to continue your quest of lifelong learning.
So, what are some of your favorite, "classic" non-fiction reads? (They aren't generally as agreed upon as the classic novels are.) I'll still read Dickens and Hugo and maybe I'll even give Austen another chance, but I'll also read Henry Adams and Barbara Tuchman and Montaigne and Tom Wolfe. I encourage you to do the same.
A Classic Non-Fic Reading List
Keeping descriptions short this time since it's a long list. I've only read a few of these.
Walden by Henry David Thoreau. Philosophical discourse/memoir on nature, society, and more.
Meditations by Marcus Aurelius. Mentioned last week too. Pithy diary-esque compilation of Stoic musings.
12 Years a Slave by Solomon Northup. Included here because I just finished it, and it's amazing. Write up coming next week.
Silent Spring by Rachel Carson. Environmental treatise of the '60s.
The Diary of a Young Girl by Anne Frank. A young girl's recollection of the Holocaust.
The Autobiography of Malcolm X. The famed activist's life before and during the Civil Rights Movement.
The Education of Henry Adams. The memoir of John Adams' great-grandson.
The Civil War by Shelby Foote. Lengthy and beleaguered trilogy of the Civil War. Praised for its narrative value.
The Life of Samuel Johnson by James Boswell. Often considered the greatest biography of all-time.
The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich by William Shirer. History of Nazi Germany.
The Right Stuff by Tom Wolfe. Covers the early years, and especially the pilots, of the space program.
In Cold Blood by Truman Capote. True crime at its finest, written with a novelistic flair.
The Death and Life of Great American Cities by Jane Jacobs. A critique and reflection on urban planning; I've heard it's more exciting than it sounds.
That's all for me. I always love hearing about what you're reading. Thanks for the time and inbox space.