Thursday, February 03, 2000

jane eyrehead

It probably is not politically correct to admit to this, but I like to read classic literature.

No, strike that. I like to read -- period. It's one of the few things my first-grade teacher did for me that I appreciate.

When I have a book in my hands, it's impossible to get my complete attention. Even as I express annoyance at being disturbed, half my mind is wondering about the book's deeper meanings and the other half is wondering what will happen next. Only the smallest portion handles the occasional nodding and grunting to convince whoever's speaking to me that they have my rapt attention.

I've loved literature ever since I learned to appreciate the differences between "Crime and Punishment" and "Encyclopedia Brown and the Case of the Disgusting Sneakers." My bookshelf is lined end-to-end with volumes with tongue-twister titles like "The Brothers Karamazov," "The Nibelungenlied" and "The Orkneyinga Saga." (Plus "Dr. Who and the Loch Ness Monster.")

Fortunately, I am married to someone who shares my bibliophilia. Although Natasha does not read as quickly as I do -- I once read Gaston Leroux's "The Phantom of the Opera" in two evenings, something it would take her more than a week to finish -- she enjoys the chance to curl up with a good book and lose herself in another world for a while.

Shortly after we married, we made it our custom to read a book together each night before we go to sleep. Traditions like Thanksgiving dinner, family reunions and spilling a glass of milk on the Easter dinner are all very important, but we wanted to add our own tradition to the mix. So we threw out the television (how I wish that were literally true) as the locus of our family evenings, and replaced it with reading.

Since we married in 1998, Natasha and I have read more than a dozen books in this way, but as much as I enjoy recent books like Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett's "Good Omens," I can't deny my love of classic Western literature. We now are enjoying Charlotte Bronte's "Jane Eyre."

No, that's not quite right. Natasha is enjoying it. She's dragged me kicking and screaming through every page so far.

How on earth this book came to be regarded as a classic of Western literature, I don't know. Shakespeare's plays -- those are classics. The Bible -- that's a classic. "Le Morte d'Arthur" -- not especially well-written in parts or entirely original, but a classic nonetheless.

"Jane Eyre." I'm not even sure why this book is still in print.

I'll admit that "Jane Eyre" does fit the definition I had for classic literature back during high school: It's so boring I've fallen asleep reading it. The key distinction between "Jane Eyre" and other, great works of literature is that "Jane Eyre" hasn't required an English teacher to make it boring. It's had that effect all on its own.

"Jane Eyre" is a book that in the 80-plus pages we have read has gone absolutely nowhere. The author makes her point that life as a 12-year-old orphan girl in 19th-century England is awful and grim so well that I've taken to spicing up the writing with comments like, "Oh! Horror! Woe! Life stinks!"

"Jane Eyre" tells the story of a girl named, appropriately enough, Jane Eyre. The book begins at her aunt's house, called Goatshead or something similarly silly, where she has no friends and is routinely mistreated by her cousins and her aunt. (Woe, horror, alas!) Her mother, father and uncle all have died, apparently, because life is unfair. (Woe, horror, apocalypse.)

From there it just goes downhill. After 40 pages of cheap melodrama worse than anything I've seen on television, it looks like Jane's life is about to improve when she gets packed off to school. Unfortunately, the school she attends is run by someone named Broccoliburst who hates the world because he has such an ugly name, and he embarrasses her early in her stay at the school.

The only consolation Jane has is her friend, a little urchin named Helen Ragamuffin. During their first real conversation as friends, Helen starts waxing poetic about the Christian doctrine of the Resurrection, only to end her impassioned speech with a cough.

"Oh woe! Horror!" I cried, when Natasha read that part. "Helen Ragamuffin has tuberculosis and is going to die! Horror! She's Jane's only friend and she's about to die! Oh, alack the day!"

Natasha burst out laughing. I had predicted Helen's fate accurately at the first clue we were given of it.

Natasha read the book back in high school and insists it's good. If it's such a good book, I want to know, why do the deaths of half the girls at the school get a one-paragraph summary? "Oh, and by the way, during that summer, half the girls died from typhoid fever." Um, yeah. Sure. Albert Camus' "The Plague" chronicles the course of disease in a much more interesting manner.

My younger brother, Ward, read "Jane Eyre" back in college for an English literature class he took as a requirement for all prospective veterinary medicine students. I guess the thinking is, if you can survive reading boring books like these, you can survive the textbooks at vet school too.

Like Natasha, he insists the book is good, and said that when Jane gets her job as a governess -- the part we're about to start -- it really takes off as some sort of mystery.

Gee, I don't know. Isn't 85 pages a little long to introduce the plot? Give me Encyclopedia Brown any day. He not only reaches the mystery in the first two paragraphs, he solves it in five pages.

Now the English-speaking world is replete with intellectual achievement, if for no other reason than it includes so many people. In the United States alone, we have schools ranging from community colleges to state universities to Ivy League institutions. Moreover, there are at least thousands of talented, aspiring writers. With all this knowledge and talent available, it shouldn't be that hard to improve the book.

I've made a number of critiques so far, so I won't repeat them, but I will make one final comment: By the time Jane Eyre reaches her new school, most readers are desperate for some action.

I have found in my own creative writing that the best action sequences involve large tractor trailers, out-of-control school buses and crash-landing 747s. If Charlotte Bronte had thought to throw one of these at Jane's school, her book would have become a lot more interesting and would belong to a superior genre of literature.