|my copy of the book I read|
School Year 1984–1985. Harmon Middle School. Aurora, Ohio.
I am nearing my twentieth year of teaching. Among my assignments that year—an elective class for seventh and eighth graders interested in reading. We read silently during the class. We read aloud. We read things together. We talk about what we were reading. Write about it. But I like to start each period with ten minutes of silent reading—any book you want (well, anything within reason). I do it too. And I am reading Frankenstein. For the first time.
It is the 1980 Watermill Classic edition, one of a series of inexpensive paperback reprintings of classic works—the sort of publication that the internet has killed. (Why pay for a book when you can read it for free online?) I have other titles in the series, too. Tom Brown’s Schooldays, The Sea-Wolf, White Fang, Moby-Dick, The War of the Worlds, The Time Machine, and Dracula are a few I can remember.
I recently looked again at that copy of Frankenstein I’d read in 1985. The cover shows the face of the Boris Karloff version of the creature (electrodes-in-neck); electricity dances in the air around his head—as if he’s either emitting or attracting lightning. His face has a greenish-yellowish glow. His eyes are in shadow, but he’s looking right at us.
The book has stood, untouched, among my many Shelley-Frankenstein titles for more than a quarter-century. As I open it, I notice, as was (and is) my custom, that I wrote the date I read it (January 1985). And I also see that the book still has some bookmarks—little pieces of torn paper I put between pages to help me find quickly some things I wanted to read aloud to the kids (in order): on the glacier in Switzerland, the creature tells his story to Victor Frankenstein; the creature kills little William Frankenstein; Victor agrees to create a mate for the creature; Victor destroys the mate; the creature vows revenge—promises he will be with Victor on his wedding night; the death of friend Clerval; the death of lover Elizabeth; the death of Victor’s father; Walton’s conversation with the creature; the ending on the ice.
I wrote only two notes in the book. On the first inside page: “tales within tales within tales”—a reference to Mary Shelley’s decision to tell the story with a mixture of narrative and letters. And on page 136 I’ve written “dumb” next to the creature’s reaction to an outburst from Victor, who’s just called the creature “devil” and “vile insect.” The creature replies: “I expected this reception.” I’m not sure why I wrote “dumb” there. Was it a comment on the narrative? On Mary Shelley? On her diction? The creature?
I did a bit of underlining in the text—nothing extensive. Just some lines I thought important. “It was the secrets of heaven and earth that I desired to learn” (37). “A flash of lightning illuminated the object and discovered its shape plainly to me; its gigantic stature, and the deformity of its aspect, more hideous than belongs to humanity” (99). “I feared the effects of the demon’s disappointment” (236). That sort of thing.
So I first read the novel in 1985, but did nothing more with Frankenstein for five or six years. And then—for a reason I can no longer recall—I gave the students an assignment that changed my life.