Saturday, June 1, 2013
SILAS MARNER in the Mall
I'm going to take a wild guess and declare that I was the only person in the Starbucks at Chapel Hill Mall last night who was reading Silas Marner.
I know: Sounds elitist. Arrogant. Self-congratulatory. Well, I do feel a bit proud of myself--though I'm not arrogant about it, not at all ... as you'll see. After all, I should have read the book a half-century ago.
Let's back up a little. Silas Marner, the third novel by George Eliot (Mary Ann Evans, 1819-1880). She'd already written Adam Bede and The Mill on the Floss and was yet to write Middlemarch, her wonderful novel that remains the only book I've ever listened to. (I did so while driving back and forth to Cleveland Clinic for my thirty-five radiation treatments for prostate cancer back in January and February 2009.) Oddly, I still feel that I haven't read Middlemarch--and will probably, one of these days, do it again, the old-fashioned way.
Silas Marner is about ... Silas Marner, a rural weaver, who, right in Chapter 1 is accused of stealing money from his church congregation. (I can relate: As a wee lad myself, I thought about it every time the collection plate went down our row--not about Silas Marner, of whom I knew very little--as you'll see--but about how I could whisk away a dollar or so from the plate without being detected, either by the people in my row or by You-Know-Who.)
When I was in junior high and high school, I would hear about Silas Marner from the upperclassmen. The novel was then (the 1950s and early 1960s) a staple of the curriculum in America's public high schools--probably because it was (1) by a famous writer, (2) short (it could easily fit into a standard high school anthology of British literature). It was also convincing evidence that teachers hated students. Or so I inferred. Because, you see, the students universally despised Silas Marner. I knew no one who spoke well of the book, and that included my older brother, Richard, who loved nothing more than reading fat Russian novels while listening to long German operas on the record player. When he was about ten. (Weird kid went on to become the classical musical critic for the Boston Globe for about thirty years.)
Every now and then I would complain about something we had to read in class--oh, Julius Caesar, say--and some upperclassman would snort in derision and say something like: "Shakespeare is like eating candy; Silas Marner is like eating coal." Over and over I would hear "Just wait till you have to read ... [dramatic pause] Silas Marner!" In most ways, I was really looking forward to my senior year (Freedom lay just beyond--or so I ignorantly thought)--but the looming crisis of Silas Marner made me wonder if the junior year really had far more attractions.
I should admit something else here. My parents--despairing that I would ever read books--had been buying me Classics Illustrated comic books for quite a while. (Here's a link to a site showing them all.) These were famous (and sometimes not-so-famous) novels faithfully (mostly) re-told in comic book form. I read all kinds of books in Classics Illustrated form--The Last of the Mohicans, The Call of the Wild, Ivanhoe, Moby-Dick, even Hamlet and Romeo and Juliet. I found I could understand what actual readers were talking about; I could contribute to conversations about the White Whale--though there were not really a lot of those among my coevals.
But when my senior year began (1961-1962), we had a new teacher. (Actually, she was an older teacher--a woman who'd retired from another district but was coming back for a year or two--probably because she had taken one look at her pension check and realized she was facing penury.) And one of the first things she told us? No Silas Marner. Simultaneous sighs of relief from Hiram, Ohio, temporarily knocked the moon out of its orbit. No Silas Marner!
But now that I'm in the autumn/early winter of life, I've started doing and reading some things I neglected to do years ago. I've read War and Peace and In Search of Lost Time and Don Quixote and other books I've longed feigned that I read. And the other day I thought I should do Silas Marner. It's free on Kindle (and there are free Internet versions, too: here's a link to one of them).
And last night, we decided to run out to Chapel Hill Mall to walk around and drink coffee, and while Joyce zoomed off in search of ???, I sat at one of the Starbucks tables, fired up my Kindle, opened Silas Marner and began to read ... I read Chapter 1, and ...
TO BE CONTINUED