Soon after I started reading Les Misérables at work, I began to get agitated over the amount of time I'd squandered reading other things instead. At first, I looked back balefully at my recent on-line reading; the vast number of page views: The New York Times, The Awl, New York Magazine's Sex Diaries, The New Yorker, too (although to read it on-line always made me feel like a pervert); plus essays and reviews from Arts & Letters Daily, with regular stops at The Onion, Slate, Salon, Jezebel, Gawker and Fark (I love the tabloids). My eyes, strained; my weary brain, dulled by my day job and my reading: I blamed The Male Brain, that coddled hive mind, compulsively churning out text to fill columns and screens. My envious eyes raked down the pages, my brain in freefall; I could get vertigo at my desk from the sensation of hard narrow male chests, each in its button-down--pink, blue or white--pressed into the form of a cliff face down which I slid, nowhere to catch onto; dislodged buttons bounced and clattered in the chasms still below me.
By the time Jean Valjean robbed Little Gervais of his heaviest coin--a crime not without consequence in a wonderful, terrible way, it transpires--I would get agitated over how I'd never read Les Misérables before: How, I mean, in the sense of what had caused this omission to happen. What had I read instead? Everything else--including many French novels (all in English translations, to match my English major). French novels! Except no Victor Hugo, but a whole lot of Balzac and Zola and Proust, and naturally Flaubert. So in fact it happens that for college credit I read Madame Bovary twice. Twice. Before I was 21.
Because Madame Bovary was a requirement!
Now, I'm not here to cry over spilt milk or to cast stones at the promiscuous younger woman I became; I could have been worse. But I will take a moment, another among quite a few lately, to ask, sharply: What was that about? Hmm? Mister Men who man the Western canon which is aimed (apparently? perchance?) straight at the rosy knees of Western coeds: Was this really worth the sacrifice? Let me repeat: I have read everything now, except Les Misérables which I'm reading at work, and I am here to say, it's one of the single best things ever written, up there with Hamlet and Macbeth, no lie. It is also a book about social justice and humility, charity and repentance; it is (unfashionably? still?) "improving." Whereas I ask, seriously: Did reading Madade Bovary instead improve me more? Make me fitter for this modern world--a better citizen, a better reader, even? A deeper person, for the reading of a sad book--even while the sadder, better book remained unmentioned, unrequired, and (by me at least) unread? Because I really don't believe so.