Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Springboarding into Books

I just finished reading The Pilgrim's Progress, the 1678 work by John Bunyan. The book is a Christian allegory, probably the most famous in English literature. It has never been out of print since first being published.

Reading Bunyan was slow going. At first, I didn't understand why it was so slow. The narrative is not smooth; the transitions are awkward. As a result, about a third of the way through Part One I had to step outside (figuratively, not literally) and put the work in its historical context. That is when I realized that this is not a novel. While there is an ongoing debate in the academic world as to when the first English novel was published, many scholars agree that it is later than Bunyan. (Leading contenders, for all you geeks like me out there who just want to know, are Daniel Defoe's Robinson Crusoe and Samuel Richardson's Pamela, both appearing in the 1700s.) So context number one was "this is not a novel, or certainly not a novel in the sense that we understand a novel to be." So I needed to stop expecting it to be a novel.

The second contextual issue for me as I waded through the dense writing was "how did anyone have the patience to read this?" I am used to faster paced reading (see context number one: this is not a novel). Then it hit me: it's the 1670s, April. (Sometimes, despite being a geek, I am slow on the uptake.) There were no telephones, no televisions, no internet. There were no magazines to speak of and newspapers were in their infancy. There were no trains, planes, or automobiles. If you were outside a major city, such as London, entertainment was limited and local. The literacy rate in England at the time was less than 50%, so even having a reader in the household was a major asset. So context number two was "Bunyan's readers didn't mind a long, densely written book because they weren't bombarded with a thousand other things all calling for their time or attention, and a book, any book, was a treat." A work like The Pilgrim's Progress could be read in the evening over the course of a long winter. Foolish me, trying to read it in quick doses while juggling the other demands and interruptions on my time, and then wondering why it was taking "so long." 

The third contextual issue was putting Bunyan into the religious landscape of his time. Religious freedom and religious inquiry were current and vital topics in England in the 1600s. England was in the middle of the Restoration. The Stuart kings were Catholic; Parliament, on the heels of the Commonwealth, was holding the line at maintaining the supremacy of the Church of England. Any other religious expression, including the burgeoning number of Protestant reformers, was forbidden. Bunyan was jailed as "a non-conformist" minister more than once between 1658 and 1672; he may have written much of The Pilgrim's Progress while in jail. Even with limited knowledge of the religious issues, I could pick out characters who reflected the societal turmoil and Bunyan's views of that turmoil. So historical context number three was that this book was written during a time of great religious upheaval, in which Bunyan was deeply involved and for which he was jailed, and that the societal issues, as well as Bunyan's religious beliefs, are part of the narrative. 

I'm not sure these three contextual realizations made reading Bunyan any easier or smoother, but they did allow me a framework in which to place myself as I worked my way through this work over three hundred years after it was written.

Next up is Vanity Fair, written 150 years later and taking its title and theme from a locale in The Pilgrim's Progress. From there, I will jump forward another almost half century and reread Little Women.

Why Little Women? Louisa May Alcott was intimately familiar with The Pilgrim's Progress and references to it are laced throughout her great work. Alcott was writing two centuries later, but she was clearly well-versed in the book and made ample use of Bunyan's work to advance her own story. I have a feeling that I may read and understand Little Women differently after having read Bunyan. While reading Bunyan, I had several moments of "ah, so that's what Alcott was talking about."

So many times one book is a springboard leading to another or to a whole line of books. I got interested in reading Bunyan from reading Payback - Debt and the Shadow Side of Wealth, a 2008 nonfiction work by Margaret Atwood. Reading backwards to 1678, I am now springing forward to the 1800s. From there, it is anyone's guess, including my own, which direction I will turn.

As I recently noted, for me reading is like floating down a river. Judging by the books on the table, I'm going to be in the water for some time to come.


Michelle DeRusha@Graceful said...

Wow, April, major kudos to you for completing A Pilgrim's Progress. I have never read it (and I was an English major!).

see you there! said...

I'm not at all sure I'm ready to tackle A Pilgrim's Progress but if I do I know your background notes will be useful.

I do like and read Atwood tho.


Anonymous said...

When I was little, the Portland Public Library had a list of books that all children should read. It had about 70 books on it. My mother told me that she would give me $100 if I read every book on the list. This was about 1965 and I was about 10 years old so $100 was an unfathomable amount of money, certainly for me and surely for my mother as well. There were lots of books on the list: Charlotte's Web, Little Women, Robinson Crueson, Swiss Family Robinson, as well as all the young adult authors you can remember. In hindsight, my mother could make that offer with substantial confidence that she would not have to make good on it because the first book on the list was Pilgrim's Progress.

No matter how hard I tried at the ripe age of 12, and as I slogged through junior high and high school, could I bring my self to get past about the first 5 to 10 pages of that book. Reluctantly I realized that reward was not to be mine and focused my money making efforts on babysitting jobs.

I read a lot of good books that were on that list in addition to all the other books I devoured in a perverse effort to defy my parents' efforts to get me to sleep at a reasonable hour by reading in my bed until 2 AM most nights.

But all these years later, I have to wonder who was the librarian who put that book on that list of books for children?!!!!


Jenny Woolf said...

I think you're right about books in the social context of the time. I sometimes look at Sir walter Scott's books and wonder that they became so immensely popular when they are sooooo long winded. Dickens of course was such a brilliant writer and interesting man that he manages to hold his reader's attention. But even he is too slow for many people. I am sure that in reading Pilgrim's Progress properly you will achieve a much greater understanding of many other works of literature, too, as well as "Little Women".

Terri said...

Wasn't Pilgrim's Progress read as a sort of devotional, a little bit each day? I know as I've gotten older, I like to read primary versions of books--I'm working on Darwin's Voyage of the Beagle.