The Meditations of Marcus Aurelius

Marcus Aurelius was the Emperor of Rome from 161 to 180. Marcus Aurelius was known as one of the “Five Good Emperors” and was, indeed, the last of those. Having followed such Emperors as Caligula and Nero, Marcus Aurelius, a stoic general, fair but fierce, was well-respected in his time and remained so afterward, although his son Commodus thought he was weak (mistaking patience, poise, and temperament for weakness). My edition is the Penguin Classics Clothbound, which has both a brilliant introduction and exceptional end notes. 

The Meditations are essentially a collection of diary entries. Marcus Aurelius takes a philosophical and introspective approach to assessing his own personal and political life, including his relationships with family, friends, and teachers. He treats his daily and his whole life as a constant work-in-progress. One of the more unique aspects of this text is that they were never meant for public consumption, so one might argue that they have a rare honesty  and vulnerability in comparison with other classical texts.

When I first read the Meditations, I took them one at a time. This was a slow process, as each entry tends to be just a few lines in length, and there are hundreds of them. This time, I read them rather quickly, as a refresher/re-introduction to Stoic philosophy, which I am practicing much more practically and conscientiously this year (I am reading a variety of stoic writings but also engaging in a year-long daily stoic reading and writing exercise). Reading Marcus Aurelius was a helpful start because, like many of us (and probably more than most), as an Emperor and general, he was an extremely busy man. He felt the weight of the world on his shoulders and had to spend a lot of time on others’ needs. As a stoic, he often reminded himself to distinguish between what is necessary and what is frivolous, what he could control and what he could not; and he maintained perspective by writing daily, whenever he could find the time (usually in the morning or the evening).

In that spirit, I have been doing the same: reminding myself to control what I can, and to let go what I cannot. It has also been important to find time to write every day. Most of Marcus Aurelius’s writings seem to be reflections, which means he probably wrote them at night before bed; I have been trying to write briefly in the morning, pondering a particular stoic teaching and beginning my day with it in mind, and then writing briefly at night, reflecting on where I was successful or where I could do better. The exercises have been helpful in my personal and professional life so far, and thinking about them in context with one of the original and most prominent stoic philosophers has been an interesting experiment.

The Meditations are separated into twelve books, each with its own theme (sometimes tightly woven, sometimes a bit looser). They range from reflections on politics and his role as Emperor, to lessons learned from the important people in his life, to thoughts on religion and spirituality, atheism and the afterlife. Whether taking a single entry at a time, or one book at a time, or any combination thereof, the Meditations reveal the perpetual process of a thoughtful man determined to live a good life, to treat others better (though that was a daily struggle), and to find peace in the chaos.

Some of my particular favorite entries:

“It is ridiculous not to escape from one’s own vices, which is possible, while trying to escape the vices of others, which is impossible.” (7.71)

“Vanity is the greatest seducer of reason: when you are most convinced that your work is important, that is when you are most under its spell.” (6.13)

“Think of the whole of existence, of which you are the tiniest part; think of the whole of time, in which you have been assigned a brief and fleeting moment; think of destiny – what fraction of that are you?” (5.24)

“Fit yourself for the matters which have fallen to your lot, and love these people among whom destiny has cast you – but your love must be genuine.” (6.39)

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Aristotle’s Poetics

What can I say about Aristotle’s Poetics that has not already been said, and by those much more capable? Certainly, despite being just a collection of drafts and journal entries, this is one of the most significant, relevant, and pervasive pieces of literary criticism in the western tradition. It continues to influence readers and scholars alike. While some have said the work is difficult to read and understand, I thought the Malcolm Heath translation (Penguin Classics 1996) was excellent, and the Introduction even better.

Heath takes Aristotle’s Poetics chapter-by-chapter, explaining what each of the core concepts is in any given part of the text, then elaborating with details, explanations, and contemporary context, which makes the original text much more readable. It was particularly helpful to read the introduction because the translation itself dropped some of the original language, without reference. For example, mimesis, hamartia, and katharsis, three incredibly important terms in literary criticism (including the study of rhetoric, drama, and narrative), are addressed by descriptions of their functions, only, and the translated terms (imitation, error, and purification) are what is given in the text itself. This is one of the few flaws I found in the translation because, presumably, anyone reading this text is doing so for edification on the topics of literary study and should hopefully be aware of the Greek terms that we continue to use in conversation of these topics, even 2,000-plus years later.  

That slight blip aside, I thoroughly enjoyed my time with Aristotle’s Poetics. The majority of his musings are about dramatic tragedy, particularly in comparison to dramatic comedy, which he finds a lesser art form. That said, much of what he describes also applies to the study of narrative fiction and storytelling more generally. His methods of analysis, too, are fascinating in that they illustrate how one might go about “doing” the work of literary criticism, not to mention that his insights provide excellent food for thought regarding the dramas he analyzes himself (such as works by Aeschylus, Sophocles, Euripides, and Homer). Of the utmost interest is the idea that readers (more appropriately: audiences) derive pleasure from what are often painful emotions related to tragedies: fear, anger, loss, disappointment, etc. This, of course, leads to Aristotle’s explanation of catharsis and supports his argument that the cathartic experience of reading emotional works or witnessing an emotional play (of a specific type, at a specific sophistication, and for a certain privileged kind of audience) is the reason why storytelling is so powerful and effective.

One of the most unique and compelling aspects of Aristotle’s analysis, for me, has to do with the study of character, and what makes a “good” character. Aristotle claims that the character needs to be moral, but not perfect. He should be believable in his purposes and his struggles, but should also be “better” than we are, so that we can look to him as one to admire and so that we react rightly when said character falls. I think of the kinds of books I most often respond to, and they do indeed tend to have characters that are flawed but noble, that often fail but do great good (either actually or didactically/philosophically). In treating my thoughts on characterization in book reviews, I will try to consider Aristotle’s perspectives a bit more closely.

Aristotle also explains the function of plot and describes which are better or worse, depending on their constructions and outcomes. He describes “ordered structure” for example, and the idea that even in chaos, there must be some kind of realistic expectation for the events that are occurring. In other words, a character/reader/audience might be surprised by something that happens, but whatever it is that happens must be probable to the situation at hand. This is somehow both an obvious observation but also a profound one: how many plots have run afoul because the author seemed to throw in some plot device or tangent that made no sense and that could have been removed without influencing the story whatsoever? Everything must have a purpose. Whereas I found the exploration on character interesting from my perspective as a reader, I find this analysis of effective plots invaluable when thinking about my work as a writer.

The last element I found most fascinating, though I am skipping plenty that is interesting for the sake of brevity and because I simply did not conduct an academic reading on this text, is the idea of language. Aristotle criticizes some of his contemporaries who balked at the fact that some poets were using colloquial language. He writes that “the most important quality in diction is clarity, provided there is no loss of dignity” and adds that “the clearest diction is that based on current words” (36). He argues that the best language is that which is “some kind of mixture” of diction that is both clear and out of the ordinary, traditional and inventive. In many ways, I think this argument presages what Shakespeare would do in retelling familiar stories but couching it in the language of the people, even going so far as to invent much of the language he needed because it simply didn’t exist yet (or didn’t fit into his rhyme scheme). It is heartening to think that Aristotle, one of the foremost minds in all of western philosophy and an authority on language, was not an old fuddy-duddy.  

Aristotle’s Poetics is book 2 completed for my 2018 TBR Pile Challenge

Far From the Madding Crowd by Thomas Hardy

After reading Thomas Hardy’s Mayor of Casterbridge in college, I certainly appreciated Hardy and was grateful to him for truly piquing my interest in the classics. Now, after reading Far from the Madding Crowd, I can absolutely call myself a fan. It is no wonder that Hardy has multiple entries on the infamous “1,001 Books to Read Before You Die” master list, including Far From the Madding Crowd. This story revolves around a love-triangle (or love-square, really) between Bathsheba Everdene, a beautiful, resourceful young woman who comes into ownership of her Uncle’s farm, another farmer from a neighboring town, Gabriel Oak, who finds himself ruined and goes to work for Bathsheba as a shepherd (after having met and courted her previously, before she became owner of the farm), a dashing young soldier, Sergeant Francis Troy – whom, had the term existed then, would have been known as a “player,” and, finally, Bathsheba’s neighbor-farmer, Mr. William Boldwood, whose mild manner and temperance masks an inner-passion and danger that only Bathsheba can unleash –unwittingly and, ultimately, remorsefully. The three men court Bathsheba in their various ways, and the town goes on around them, filled with the regular gossip, up-and-down seasons, and mild mysteries and adventures. 

The two things that first made me fall in love with Hardy’s Mayor of Casterbridge were its style and its characters. Far from the Madding Crowd is no different. Although the story does not move along at a rapid pace and although the majority of it is rather mild and calm in nature (though there are some surprises and moving moments, for certain!), Hardy has a way of making everyone and everything so very interesting, as if we the reader are a part of the plot, rather than an observer of it. The characters, from major to minor, are original, unique, and distinguishable from one another. The poor desolate Fanny, beautiful but tragically ruined, is a sideline character, but one of utmost importance. The workers, Jan Coggan, Joseph Poorgrass, and Cainy Ball are exactly the type of men you would hope (and assume) to find on a prosperous but familial farm. Liddy Smallbury, Batsheba’s maid, is sweet but mildly devious, and the aptly named Pennways, Batsheba’s former bailiff (accountant) is fittingly slimy. These minor characters move the story along and interplay with the primary characters and themes in a way that is subtly intricate. Most importantly, all of the characters are realistic both in their flaws and in their strengths, which strengthens the genuineness and believability of the story as a whole. 

As I mentioned above, one of Hardy’s great strength is his writing, including prose and style. He has the ability to engage his readers in stories which are interesting, but not necessarily enthralling. Although much of the story is about everyday life, with love’s toils interspersed throughout, the book is never boring. Much of this is thanks to the interestingly drawn and loveable (or despicable) characters, but the principal reason for the story’s success is that Hardy is such a fantastic storyteller. His narrative voice is interesting and distinct from the main characters’ tones; they, too, are independent of each other, and the dialogue is wonderful. The descriptions are lovely and lucid, without being overwrought (e.g. Proust, Radcliffe), so they complement the story without overshadowing it. 

Simply put, Far from the Madding Crowd is a story about love and life. It is a story about growth and maturity, and how true maturity only comes about through experience. Each of the characters in this story, excluding perhaps Gabriel Oak, have made grave mistakes, and each character must suffer in his or her way for the choices they have made. Some, like Bathsheba, do seem to learn from what they have experienced and grow into better people. Others, like Troy, seem to be so immature and self-absorbed that little growth can be expected from them. And still others, such as Mr. Boldwood, are doomed to suffer from choices instigated by the follies of others.  The themes of independence, self-worth, female leadership, and human companionship are explored.

Final Verdict: 4.0 out of 4.0

Notable Quotes:

“It is safer to accept any chance that offers itself, and extemporize a procedure to fit it, than to get a good plan matured, and wait for a chance of using it.”

“It appears that ordinary men take wives because possession is not possible without marriage, and that ordinary women accept husbands because marriage is not possible without possession.”

“There are accents in the eye which are not on the tongue, and more tales come from pale lips than can enter an ear.”

“She was of the stuff of which great men’s mothers are made.  She was indispensable to high generation, hated at tea parties, feared in shops, and loved at crises.”

Background on the Title:

“Far from the madding crowd” means, essentially, safe from the crazies. It refers to a quiet and rural place.  Hardy took the line from a passage in Thomas Gray’s Elegy Written in a Country Churchard, 1751:

“Far from the madding crowd’s ignoble strife,
Their sober wishes never learn’d to stray;
Along the cool sequester’d vale of life
They kept the noiseless tenor of their way.”  –Thomas Gray

December’s Classic: Wuthering Heights #CBAM2017

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As we wrap-up November and our latest classic, Fyodor Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov, it’s time to start planning for December! This time, I chose a popular classic that I have read just once before, many years ago, but that was due for a re-read and seemed “just right” for a winter read: Wuthering Heights by Emily Brontë!

This is the last month of the Classic Book-a-Month Club for 2017. I have not decided whether to bring this club back again in 2018. There didn’t seem to be much participation or interest this year, so at the moment it doesn’t seem like it would be worth it. That said, I am certainly open to doing this again next year if there’s enough interest. I have already thought of about 6 out of the 12 books I would like to have the club read, but would take suggestions for the other 6.

In addition, whether or not this Club returns, I am hosting The Official TBR Pile Challenge again in 2018, as well as a year-long Bible As Literature challenge, where we will read the Christian bible cover-to-cover and from a secular, literary perspective. 

About the December Selection:

Wuthering Heights is a wild, passionate story of the intense and almost demonic love between Catherine Earnshaw and Heathcliff, a foundling adopted by Catherine’s father.

After Mr Earnshaw’s death, Heathcliff is bullied and humiliated by Catherine’s brother Hindley and wrongly believing that his love for Catherine is not reciprocated, leaves Wuthering Heights, only to return years later as a wealthy and polished man. He proceeds to exact a terrible revenge for his former miseries.

The action of the story is chaotic and unremittingly violent, but the accomplished handling of a complex structure, the evocative descriptions of the lonely moorland setting and the poetic grandeur of vision combine to make this unique novel a masterpiece of English literature.

Schedule:

  • December 1st: Begin reading
  • December 15th: Mid-point Check-In
  • December 31st: Final Thoughts

Feel free to read at your own pace, post at your own pace (or not at all), and drop by to comment/chat about the book at any point. The schedule above is just the one I plan to use in order to keep myself organized and to provide some standard points and places for anyone who is reading along to get together and chat. Don’t forget: We have a Goodreads group! And we’re using #CBAM2017 to chat on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram.

A Book Lover’s Holiday Gift Guide and Giveaway!

Back in October, I shared that The Folio Society had at last completed their complete Jane Austen collection, with the publication of the illustrated Mansfield Park. As I mentioned at that time, my friends at The Folio Society were gearing up for a big holiday release and, as a “thank you” to the readers of my blog, who have always been big Folio Society fans, they wanted to return this week and offer you all something special. (More on that at the bottom of this post!)

First, though, I thought I would share with you some new treasures I discovered in the Holiday Catalog. If you are still thinking about gifts for the special bookworms in your life, I have to recommend these beautiful editions of classic literature (they also have texts from philosophy, science, religion, etc.) What is special about these editions is not just the fact that they are illustrated with stunning work by some of the most talented artists today, but they are beautifully bound in illustrated covers and come in sturdy slip-cases, which is important for protecting the look (and value) of these books, especially for long-time collectors. One of my favorite features, though, is that each edition comes with a new introduction. Take The Folio Society’s new edition of Ray Bradbury’s The Illustrated Man, for example; it is introduced by the incomparable Margaret Atwood!

Anyway, my perusal of the holiday catalog led to my acquiring 4 (technically 5!) new editions from The Folio Society. (Side note: there is also a Children’s Gift Ideas guide, from which I was VERY TEMPTED to get a few more items, but I had to restrain myself). The texts I picked-up for myself are: Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick; John Steinbeck’s East of Eden; Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s The Rime of the Ancient Mariner & Three Other Poems; and a dual edition from Philip K. Dick, including Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep and A Scanner Darkly. I have to say, even though I have collected a fair number of Folio Society books over the years, I was absolutely stunned by these new editions. The  cover art, especially, is beyond beautiful. I keep my books in their slip-cases in order to protect them, but someday I hope to purchase a display cabinet where I can put all of these out, front cover forward, because they are so beautiful.

As for the interior illustrations, well, take a look for yourself:

Moby-Dick by Herman Melville

“I think that the book which I put down with the unqualified thought ‘I wish I had written that’ is Moby-Dick” -William Faulkner

Following the huge success of their 2009 limited edition, Folio has reproduced Moby-Dick in a new collector’s edition. Featuring Rockwell Kent’s illustrations and bound in rich cloth, this is a fine presentation of what is regarded by many as the greatest American novel.

Herman Melville’s tale of the hunt for the white whale, Moby-Dick, is a sublime work of the imagination, an American Odyssey. It is at once an adventure story of the high seas, and an exploration of the uncharted regions of the soul.

A Scanner Darkly and Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?

It is difficult to measure the impact of Philip K. Dick’s work. Not only did his stories and novels win awards and influence an entire generation of science-fiction writers, many of his works have been adapted into film and continue to inspire directors to this day.

Alongside Ridley Scott’s genre-changing Blade Runner, inspired by Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, the films Total Recall, Minority Report, A Scanner Darkly and the recent television series The Man in the High Castle all owe their existence to his imagination.

For this special edition, The Folio Society have brought together two classic titles in an appropriately mind-bending format: read one, then turn the book upside down to enter the altered reality of the next.

East of Eden by John Steinbeck

“It has everything I have been able to learn about my art or craft or profession in all these years,” wrote John Steinbeck of East of Eden, the novel he considered his magnum opus.

Coolly received when it was first published in 1952, it has grown in stature and popularity ever since, and is now recognized as the author’s most ambitious and accomplished work.

This magnificent edition, published to celebrate the winner of Folio’s 2017 Readers’ Choice Fiction Competition, and produced with the highest design and production values, is a fitting testament to Steinbeck’s remarkable achievement.

The Rime of the Ancient Mariner and Three Other Poems by Samuel Taylor Coleridge

Samuel Taylor Coleridge was the most innovative and influential of all the English Romantic poets. This beautiful edition emulates our popular limited edition, with four immortal poems superbly illustrated by Harry Brockway, one of the UK’s leading wood-engravers. A striking binding design by the artist and a blocked slipcase make this the perfect vessel for Coleridge’s fantastical journeys.

This supernatural ballad was conceived as Coleridge walked in the Quantock Hills with William and Dorothy Wordsworth. From this initial inspiration Coleridge labored for five months, changing a traditional ballad stanza into an astonishingly flexible and musical unit of varying length. Lyrical Ballads, his collaboration with Wordsworth, opened with ‘The Rime of the Ancient Mariner’. It became the keynote of the book, indeed of English Romanticism as a whole.

The poem is a gripping tale of death, damnation and expiation. But it is also an allegory of sin and repentance, a mystical account of man’s fall from Grace through the symbolic killing of an innocent creature. For some critics, the mariner represents the poet himself: Coleridge wrote of his “Mind shipwrecked by storms of doubt, now mastless, rudderless, shattered, – pulling in the dead swell of a dark and windless Sea.” Just like the wedding guest, halted by the mariner and unable to break away, the reader is entranced by this visionary poem.

Important Dates

  • The last day to order for holiday delivery is December 8 (midnight EST).
  • The last day for express delivery is December 14 (midnight EST).

Giveaway!

Now for the really fun part! The Folio Society is saying HAPPY THANKSGIVING, and wishing you all early luck in your holiday shopping season by offering up one copy of their new edition of MANSFIELD PARK to a lucky winner. What do you have to do to be entered to win?

  1. Be a WordPress or an e-mail subscriber of this blog (click the thingamajig in the side-menu).
  2. Leave a comment on this post, including your e-mail handle in case you win, sharing what you are most looking forward to this holiday season! And let me know how/where you subscribe to or follow this blog.
  3. Follow me on Twitter @RoofBeamReader. (1 bonus entry)

The giveaway will close on “Black Friday” (this Friday, November 24th) at 11:59pm Pacific Time. All valid entries will be counted and winner will be chosen randomly via Random.org. Winner will have 72-hours to respond to e-mail notification with request for shipping information before new winner is chosen. Roof Beam Reader is not responsible for items lost in the mail, damaged, etc. Item will be shipped from the publisher. Folio Society editions are available exclusively at http://www.foliosociety.com.

The Mystery of Edwin Drood by Charles Dickens

Plot/Story:
4 – Plot/Story is interesting/believable and impactful.

The Mystery of Edwin Drood is Charles Dickens’s last and unfinished novel. It was inspired, supposedly, by Dickens’s brush with death while riding aboard a train with his wife. The train derailed, and Dickens and his wife literally watched as people were flung from a bridge, to their watery deaths. The early draft of Dickens’s second-to-last novel, Our Mutual Friend, was imperiled in the cabin ahead of his own, and that cabin was hanging over the edge of the bridge; Dickens risked his life by climbing into that cabin to retrieve the manuscript and bring it back to safety. He was reportedly haunted for the rest of his life by a dark shadow (Drood) which is said to have been the ghost of a murdered man seeking resolution/vindication from the mortal world. The back-story and history is enough to get anyone interested; but the novel itself, though unfinished, is also quite extraordinary. The prose is the most natural and flowing of any Dickens novel I have read. The situations are believable and the sometimes fanciful or caricatured personalities are done away with. The novel’s eponymous character, Edwin Drood, disappears about mid-way through the completed portion of the story. A suspect is brought in, but the readers are led to suspect another. Whether Drood is murdered, however, and, if so, who the actual culprit is, has been left to speculation because the narrative never reaches its conclusion. My edition of the book contains the famous “Trial of John Jasper” play, which was staged by some of the literary giants of the time, following Dickens’s death. Writers and critics such as George Bernard Shaw, Arthur Waugh, and G.K. Chesterton, took parts in the play, which developed extemporaneously and was one of the most popularly watched events of the day. As it is not a portion of the original book, however, I am not including it in the review (though it is highly interesting – so if you are intrigued by the story and the history around it, it is not to be missed). Lastly, the dangers of opium addiction begin to be clearly established – and Dickens’s own personal experiences with the drug in later life, including a possible self-consciousness about his own use of it and his witnessing the addiction of his good friend and fellow writer, Wilkie Collins – are brought into play. This makes the novel, though incomplete, rather powerful to me, due to its honesty and sensitivity.

Characterization:
3 – Characters well-developed.

As I mention above, Dickens seems to have developed a stronger sense of true characterization in his later career. His earlier novels employ many literary devices, such as grotesques and caricatures, which are in a way cutely identifiable as “Dickensian” but which are, to me, sometimes rather annoying. While Dickens does lash out vehemently against the Philanthropists (as he does in other works) here, he is blunt and direct in the approach; he does not exactly employ a character and warp that character into representing Dickens’s vision of “The Philanthropist” but, instead, just bashes the group as a whole. There is a Philanthropist in the novel, and he does embody many of the elements which Dickens has stated in the narration are deplorable, but he is more a character than a caricature. Dickens does a great job of differentiating the many different characters, even those who come in near the “end” and are not well understood because the story is cut off prematurely. The characters are described in such a way as to be identifiable, with familiar ticks or physical quirks. Their slang and dialects are distinct, as are their mannerisms and features. What would have perhaps enhanced the characterization further, other than having completed the novel, would be a bit more time spent on development. Drood, for instance, who we pretty much understand, is not really missed when he disappears. This is a shortcoming, since he is the crux of the plot and the one person (aside from, perhaps, his “Pussy” – Rosa) whom we should care about. Similarly, Neville, the supposed antagonist, is relatively underdeveloped compared to the minor players – like Durdles and The Deputy. John Jasper, Mr. Crisparkles, and Mr. Grewgious, however, are all very well done.

Prose/Style:
4 – Extraordinary Prose/Style, enhancing the Story.

I mentioned previously how impressed I am with Dickens’s apparent growth from his earlier works to this one, in terms of his prose and style. I am easily annoyed by some of his trademark characterizations and burlesques, but seeing what he does here in Edwin Drood makes me extremely interested, and much more compelled, to read more of his late works, like Our Mutual Friend and Bleak House or Hard Times. This was also visible in Great Expectations, though I think it is most prominent here. Dickens employs a rather straightforward style, and his prose is much more conversational and accessible, though still beautifully wrought. He introduces snippets of letters and song or poetry to break the monotony of prose, which advances the story quite well and adds a welcome and entertaining level to the story. This edition also includes original illustrations which are beautifully done and allow the reader a pictographic point of reference, as it were – an image of the scene, with characters drawn in the style of the times, wearing the clothes and expressions of the period. I was highly receptive to their inclusion.

Additional Elements: Setting, Symbols/Motifs, Resolution, etc.
3 – Additional elements are present and cohesive to the Story.

What I found most intriguing about this novel is the personality which Dickens gives the work overall. I am deeply saddened that the book was never completed, because I truly believe it may have been one of his crowning achievements. Dickens was always a writer who exposed social injustices, particularly in regards to poverty and religion, having experienced a childhood of nearly absolute deprivation; but he gets even more personal with this work. Many believe the character, John Jasper, to be a re-imagining of Dickens’s feelings toward his embarrassment of a son, Sydney, who racked up enormous debt in Dickens’s name and was ultimately banished from the Dickens home. Also, it is believed that one of Dickens’s great regrets was marrying so young – which is clearly expressed in the tormented relationship of Edwin and Rosa, which is eventually broken off, mutually, by the two. And, of course, as I mentioned above – Dickens’s mental anguish and torment since his brush with death, intensified perhaps by his (likely) use of opium, are all present within the text. The amount of “self” which Dickens exudes in this work is touching and painful, like a scarred wound, unveiled at last by an old writer to his loyal but ignorant readers. It is almost as if Dickens was writing his own eulogy – a farewell in swan’s song, putting his mind at rest before the long, terrible, and permanent final rest.

Final Verdict: 3.5 out of 4.0

Notable Quotes:

“The cramped monotony of my existence grinds me away by the grain.”

“Circumstances may accumulate so strongly even against an innocent man, that directed, sharpened, and pointed, they may slay him.”

“Stranger, pause and ask thyself the question, canst thou do likewise? If not, with a blush retire.”

Recommended Reading: Bending Boundaries

i4ndexWhat is the heart and soul of literature? What is the purpose of a reading-driven life? I believe people who read a lot, and with variety, are uniquely placed to learn more about the world, its history and its people, and to become more compassionate, tolerant, and patient because of their reading experiences.

These are the real reasons why I love to read the classics. Yes, they’re an escape; they can be beautifully written, exciting, scary, and emotionally charged. But, mostly, they teach me, and show me, more about the world and its people and places than anything else ever could.

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The books below are some of my favorites, and they’ve all helped me to experience the world in ways that I couldn’t possibly in my own life. They’ve transported me to a different world, taught me about different cultures, and helped me step into the shoes of people who are different from me. From the poverty and union movements of French miners to the experience of Jewish people during the Holocaust; from the lives of women, gay and straight, to the experience of black men and women, Latino immigrants, German philosophers, religious leaders and spiritual seekers, and the mentally and physically disabled. The books below can teach us so much about the world, past, present, and future.

Even dystopian fiction like A Handmaid’s Tale helps us to explore gender roles and the dangerous, complex, and unfair power structures established to keep women subservient. I am not going to write specific thoughts on these, and there are so many more I could have included, but I do highly recommend the list of books below. I’ve reviewed some of these here at Roof Beam Reader. Unfortunately, I read a number of them before I began blogging, so I don’t have reviews to share.

  1. Germinal by Emile Zola
  2. I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings by Maya Angelou
  3. The Ways of White Folks by Langston Hughes
  4. Kaffir Boy by Mark Mathabane
  5. Angels in America by Tony Kushner
  6. Night by Elie Wiesel
  7. The Diary of Anne Frank
  8. The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas
  9. Freakboy by Kristin Elizabeth Clark
  10. Rain God by Arturo Islas
  11. Memory Mambo by Achy Obejas
  12. Wonder by RJ Palacio
  13. The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood
  14. A Rasin in the Sun by Lorraine Hansberry
  15. “The Yellow Wallpaper” by Charlotte Perkins Gilman
  16. Siddhartha by Herman Hesse
  17. The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath
  18. Beloved by Toni Morrison
  19. A Man Called Ove by Fredrik Backman
  20. Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates

Which books have allowed you to truly step into another’s shoes? To experience a completely different lifestyle? Please share your own recommendations!