Tagged: 20booksofsummer23

Hard Times by Charles Dickens

Hard Times is #888 on the 1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die list. See the whole list and my progress here. This summer, I’m reading from the list for my 20 Books of Summer challenge, and instead of straight reviews, I’m going to compare the 1001 Books write ups with my own impressions.

Hard Times is one of the lesser known Dickens novels. It’s been on my shelf for 10+ years, and I’ve started it more than once, without getting much farther than the schoolroom chapters, where the teacher is named “Mr. McChokemchild.” A library ebook helped me get past the small font in my Penguin Popular Classics edition, and I soon wondered why no one told me this book has so much more than school children. It’s a classic Victorian social novel, tackling class, unionization, alcohol abuse, gambling, infidelity, and more. It’s sort of a North and South, with more humour and less romance.

Well, someone did try to tell me. The 1001 Books Hard Times write up not only mentions Gaskell (in an unfavourable comparison) but the entry is right beside the entry for North and South, highlighting the fact that these stories were being serialized at pretty much the exact same time – what a time to be alive! You know, if you weren’t a factory worker… or a woman…

The write up also would have helped me make the connection to utilitarianism, a philosophy I’ve been interested in since reading The Brothers Karamazov (and since going down several rabbit holes related to the current crop of tech-bro philosophers who are rebranding it as Effective Altruism). This theme is first explored in this early classroom scenes – what is an education for? What’s the point of “wondering” when you can memorize facts?

The write up portrays Hard Times as a bit of an unfocused look at these various social issues, and I guess it is, but compared to Dickens’ known works like A Tale of Two Cities, I found this one more satisfying. It read faster (not only because it’s significantly shorter), the characters were more varied, and while some were one-dimensional “bad guys”, most had some depth and showed some growth, even some of the female characters. And it’s just very funny. The circus ringmaster, Mr. Sleary, with his lisp and his rolling glass eye, was played for comic relief, but he speaks the line that sums up the book:

‘People must be amuthed, Thquire, thomehow…they can’t be alwayth a working, nor yet they can’t be alwayth a learning. Make the betht of uth; not the wurth.’

Chapter VI

To me, that’s as good as “It is a far, far better thing that I do, than I have ever done; it is a far, far better rest that I go to than I have ever known” (though perhaps not as good as “the best of times” etc.) I’m glad I finally read this. For me, that’s four down, six to go for the 1001 Books-worthy Dickens novels.

1001 Books

20 Books of Summer 2023

After skipping last year, I’m back at it again, joining Cathy in creating an overly-ambitious, unrealistic plan to read and review twenty books this summer. Though perhaps I shouldn’t sell myself short. Reviewing my past record, there’s a decent chance I’ll get to these, eventually… of my 20 books of summer 2019, I’ve now read 19. This year’s list is a combination of carryovers from summers past, prize winners and longlisters, review copies, and the few remaining 1001 Books that are sitting unread on my shelf (or books by authors who appear on that list.) Guess I’ll have to visit a used bookstore soon to replenish!

  1. The Crying of Lot 49 by Thomas Pynchon (1001 Books, previous on a 20 Books list)
  2. Hard Times by Charles Dickens (1001 Books, previous on a 20 Books list)
  3. The Blind Assassin by Margaret Atwood (1001 Books, previous on a 20 Books list)
  4. Howard’s End by E.M. Forster (1001 Books)
  5. The Ambassadors by Henry James (1001 Books)
  6. [Holding this space for another 1001 Books pick, pending a trip to Wee Book Inn]
  7. The Life of Charlotte Brontë by Elizabeth Gaskell (1001 Books adjacent)
  8. The Ladybird by D.H. Lawrence (1001 Books adjacent)
  9. Abigail by Magda Szabó, translated by Len Rix (on a previous 20 Books list)
  10. Green Darkness by Anya Seton (on a previous 20 Books list)
  11. Portrait in Sepia by Isabel Allende, translated by Margaret Sayers Peden (on a previous 20 Books list)
  12. Scattered All Over the Earth by Yoko Tawada, translated by Margaret Mitsutani (one of the books I bought in a Covid-induced haze last year)
  13. You Made a Fool of Death with Your Beauty by Akwakae Emezi (another Covid book)
  14. Tomb of Sand by Geetanjali Shree, translated by Daisy Rockwell (2022 International Booker Prize winner)
  15. Boulder by Eva Baltasar, translated by Julia Sanches (2023 International Booker Prize shortlister)
  16. [Holding this space for the 2023 International Booker Prize winner, in case I haven’t read it]
  17. I (Athena) by Ruth DyckFehderau (a review book from this year)
  18. The Last Samurai by Helen DeWitt (just a plain old “been on my TBR forever”)
  19. Milkman by Anna Burns (Booker prize winner)
  20. Self-Portrait with Boy by Rachel Lyon (cheating as I’m about to read this)

Join in at 746 Books and hold me accountable!

The stack (not pictured: a few on my Kobo)