19th Century Literature

Melissa Proffitt Melissa at Proffitt.com
Tue Aug 7 00:28:38 EDT 2001

On Tue, 31 Jul 2001 20:21:13 +0100, Hallie O'Donovan wrote:

>>Smart people are often depicted as those who can talk about older
>>novels.  Thus, talking about older novels is one way to appear smarter.
>>The obscurer, the better, but best are topics that are familiar enough
>>that people might partially recognize them without having actual
>Well, I got the point about showing off, but was actually disputing 
>the idea that these 19th C novels are the kinds of books people are 
>really likely to use to make themselves appear smarter.  I think that 
>day is probably fairly long gone.

Sadly, it's not.  That is, people who don't read are still likely to be
unduly impressed by others' having read particular books, even if you don't
intend to show off about them.  Those 18th and 19th century authors retain
that gloss of impenetrable respectability they get from being Required
Reading in high school and/or university.  If it's important enough to make
kids study, it must be Important with a capital I and certainly nothing any
sane person would want to read on her own. :)

>And, whatever the reason that Jane Austen, Dickens 
>and the like are being read, they are still being read enough that 
>many will have familiarity with them.  You'd want to get a lot more 
>obscure to be safe from discovery as a reading fraud, IMO.

I think the point Jacob is getting at is that anyone who would try to show
off this way are doing so to people who have safely *not* read any of the
above.  But I don't know how much I agree with him, so I'm not going to go
any further with that line of reasoning.

>>  > More anecdote, I know.  But sometimes, Jacob, hard cold stats are a
>>>  lot less satisfying than a sense of things.  To me at least.
>>Frankly, I find cold hard stats less satisfying than a sense of things,
>>too.  It's just that my sense of things is counter to yours (and, well,
>>apparently a lot of people on the list).  When two people disagree with
>>their sense of things, then it's usually up to cold hard facts to set
>>them straight.  Which is kind of how the topic got started--because I
>>disagreed with the original statement of the popularity of Victorian
>>works in general and we didn't know any sales figures or studies that
>>would set me straight.
>Fair enough.  But I get a strong feeling that you could come up with 
>one study or statistic which you'd feel justified your viewpoint, and 
>I could come up with another which I'd feel would justify mine, and 
>then we'd be no better off.

We are also currently living in an area with a very high percentage of
non-readers.  If I had the time, I'd like to examine our local library's
circulation statistics, because every time I go in there it seems I'm the
only one checking out actual books (everyone else is getting videos,
computer games and music CDs).  The sense that no one is reading ANYTHING is
very strong.  Let's say you live in an area where the opposite is true, and
we could somehow gather those statistics on what and how much people in our
areas are reading.  Averaging the two together would produce a picture of
"readers" that's either too generous (for our area) or too stingy (for
yours).  So we'd both disagree with the conclusions regardless of how
accurate the facts were.

>Besides, what kind of sales figure would 
>you accept as proving your point or setting you straight?  Where 
>would you draw a cut-off on percentage of people "claiming" to have 
>read a 19th Century classic for pleasure to decide they were or 
>weren't popular?  And what about people who were forced into reads 
>but then ended up liking the books?

For myself, I'm only interested in knowing how many people choose to read
19th century literature without being forced to.  That is, it's nice when
people are assigned a book and end up liking it, but I'd want to know how
many of them liked it enough to go out and read the sequel without being
pressed.  Just having read, say, _Silas Marner_ or _Persuasion_ isn't
sufficient, because a lot of people have read these books in school and most
of them remember them well enough to talk about them.  That doesn't qualify
as true love...not even a mild preference.

It's been long enough that I can't remember Jacob's original post that
started all of this off, but I do remember that we talked about it before he
wrote anything (he was showing me the article on Stevenson's biography).
What struck me was something related yet different:  Dickens was the John
Grisham of his day (at least in terms of prolificacy; I'm not going to
comment on relative quality).  EVERYONE read his books.  And there were all
these "scribbling women" in Jane Austen's day who were widely read.  I have
an annotated edition of Jane Austen's letters and she frequently talks about
novels she's read with her correspondents, and it even shows up in her
novels (Catherine Morland springs to mind).  And yet almost no one remembers
Mrs. Radcliffe and her many Gothic horrors today.  YES, I know, all of you
know who she was and have probably read _The Castle of Otranto_ until it
fell apart, don't start down that path again PLEASE.  The point I was
getting at was that we have all these writers today who are incredibly
popular, but we have no way of knowing which of them is going to *stay*
popular.  Not even if our name is Queenie and we are a pompous 25-year-old
know-it-all with way too much time on our hands.  If you have any contact
with the literary crowd, you know that some of them are very disparaging of
novels that are popular, as though the mere fact that lots of people like
them means they can't be good.  (Think Harry Potter.)  What interested me
was not how widely read Dickens is today, but that he's read at all.  It
makes me look at the latest bestsellers in a different light.

Melissa Proffitt
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