BIG BRITISH BOOKS
Let’s say you’re me. Let’s say it is 27 years ago. You are a college sophomore, and you
have not yet declared your major. But you have an eye on writing—journalism, in particular,
because even at this young age you know journalism is about the only way to write and draw a
regular paycheck. Let’s say your college does not offer a major in journalism, only English, so
you take courses in English while you plan to transfer to a big university, one with a school of
Let’s say you love newspapers and have read them all your life. Let’s say your English
professors don’t know that and don’t care, because they love books, not newspapers, and they
know the newspapers you have read all your life are not the only real newspaper in the universe,
the New York Times. That’s the newspaper they see but do not read—not the front page or the
sports section or Metro or even the Living Arts. Your professors touch the newspaper once a
week, on Sundays, and then it is only for the Sunday Book Review, the one place on Earth where
journalism meets literature. Your English professors love the Sunday Book Review. They adore
it. They would eat it if they could. But you don’t love it and you don’t read it, because you don’t
do what your English professors do, and you don’t do what your classmates do: You don’t read
Let’s say that, despite this, you sign up for a course called The English Novel of the Mid-
1800s. Your professor is a bearded man with round shoulders, a nasal voice, and that elliptical, I-don’t-know-or-care-about-the-real-world attitude that is genetically bred into career academics.
But he knows and cares about books. Especially British books. Especially British novels.
Especially the big British novels he has chosen for this course, the course he recommended that
you take because he is also your academic advisor. The man loves British novels. He adores
them. He would eat them if he could. When he talks about Thackeray and Fielding and Tristram
Shandy, his eyes sparks to life and his voice lifts from flat to full, and he’s talking loudly now, and
Gesturing while he sits on his wooden Barstool in front of your class.
“Dickens titles the book Dombey and Son, which makes us think the son is central to the
story,” he says. His jaws work his beard into a wiggle as he sets up the novel’s twist. “But what
does Dickens do? Early in the book, he kills off the beloved son, leaving Dombey to deal for the
rest of the novel with his little girl, Florence, whom he has neglected.” The professor pauses to
let you and your classmates absorb this irony, which is supposed to astound you. “Dickens,” he
says, “might well have titled the book Dombey and Daughter.”
Well, you think, this professor possesses some passion after all. He probably has an
advanced degree in the British novel. The British stuff turns the man on. You bet he wishes he
had been born in the mid-1800s. You wish that, too.
Let’s say the British stuff bores you. Especially the British novels. The professor has
ordered a stack of them for you and your classmates to read this semester. He has decided to
focus on well-known novelists but not on their best-known novels.
“You’ll get all those in other classes,” he says. “My reading list exposes you to some of
the lesser works of these great novelists. People don’t talk much about these books, but they’re
magnificent reading, and every English major should know them.”
His magnificent reading list includes Tess of the D’Urbervilles, The Mill on the Floss,
and the son-less Dombey and Son. You’ve never heard of these books, or most of the authors,
whose names don’t appear in the newspapers you read. You’ve never heard of Thomas Hardy.
You’ve never heard of George Eliot, whom the professor says is a woman. You’ve never heard
of a woman named George. You have heard of Charles Dickens, but only from the TV version of
A Christmas Carol, starring Mr. MaGoo.
Let’s say you don’t read the books. You try, but you can’t make it past Page 7, because
you’re a clueless college student, a product of your state’s public school system, and you don’t
read books. In grammar school you did manage to make it through a thin Jim Thorpe biography
with big print, and you negotiated The Great Gatsby when you got bored during Spanish class in
11th grade. But you read those books for fun, not for assignments, and you know there’s a
difference between books you want to read and books you have to read.
Now you have to read these big British books, and you don’t want to. You don’t want to
read the books because the people in them do not live in a world you recognize. In your mind,
you see all the male characters wearing velvet coats and white wigs and looking like the men
who signed the Declaration of Independence. George Washington as Dombey. John Quincy
Adams as Mr. Tulliver. Every female character resembles every portrait you’ve ever seen of
every queen named Elizabeth or Mary or Mary Elizabeth. Let’s say you have no imagination.
Another reason you don’t want to read the books is that you don’t have the discipline to
do it. You read slowly, at such a painful pace that you probably would be diagnosed with a
learning disability, except laziness is not a learning disability. The trees for the paper on which
the books are printed grow faster than you can read. You start and stop and start the paragraphs
time after time, because your eyes glide across the pages but your brain drifts elsewhere—to life
in the outer world, where the thump of a distant stereo tells you someone is rocking and rolling
while you’re sitting here trying to figure out why some guy in a ruffled shirt is riding a mule
across the moors at midnight to get to a woman who is about to marry a heartless, obstinate,
dispassionate lad who just might be her cousin. Every second, the tick of the clock on your wall
reminds you of your life passing by while you sit here, lost and befuddled and unsure even of
what a moor is.
Let’s say you put down the heavy book and tell yourself you will try again tomorrow. But
you don’t try again tomorrow. Or the next day. Let’s say you find other things to do beside
reading—chasing girls or writing stories for the school newspaper or taking photographs for the
yearbook or chasing girls or filling out your application to transfer to journalism school.
So you don’t read the big British books with their big British plots, and you decide maybe
this British novel class is not for you. Let’s say you are bright enough to know that. But you are
not bright enough to follow through and drop the course, so you stay in it and figure you can
tread water until the end of the semester.
Let’s say your teacher has a way of finding out who reads the magnificent books and who
does not. Let’s say he gives tests. So test time comes and you have read up to Page 7 and you
decide that is probably not enough to get a real feel for the whole book. So you study the titles 5
and make assumptions that you believe are logical enough, plausible enough, to get you points on
the test. The Mill on the Floss, you assume, involves a mill, maybe a place where they make
dental floss. British dental floss. Dombey and Son, you now know, has something to do with a
guy named Dombey but not son, and that’s pretty much it. And Tess of the D’Urbervilles? You
have no idea what that book is about, because you do not know what a D’Urberville is. But you
have taken enough foreign language to suspect that the D and the apostrophe mean a
D’Urberville is probably French, and the only thing that bores you more than a thick British
novel is a thick British and French novel. You wish these books had pictures.
You get nervous about the tests. Let’s say you have a friend named Robert who knows
this, and he feels sorry for you. Robert is a reader of books and newspapers. He makes good
grades and stays busy and balances his life like an adult. He happily plows through the English
novels of the mid-1800s while he does a thousand other things. Tuesdays are test days for your
class, so every Monday night, while he works into the late hours pasting together that week’s
edition of the school newspaper, Robert tells you what each book is about. He describes the main
characters, summarizes the plot, gives you the outcome. He anticipates the questions that will
show up on the test, and he bears down on the specifics so you can pad out your answers. Robert
is your Clift’s Notes (you are too lazy to read those, too). He is your book on tape. Robert knows
you are lazy. He knows you don’t get it. He speaks patiently and at length. He smiles and answers
follow-up questions that you don’t ask because you don’t know enough to say anything other
than, “Uh, what’s this book about?”
“Tom and Maggie are the main characters,” Robert says. “Their dad is Mr. Tulliver. He’s
“So that’s where the mill part comes from, in the title,” you say.
“You got it,” Robert says. “At first, Maggie falls for a lawyer named Philip Wakem, but
her father and brother forbid her from seeing him, because they hate him. Anyway, Maggie goes
to St. Ogg’s. That’s where her cousin, Lucy, is about to marry a guy named Stephen Guest.
Stephen and Maggie spark up a little romance on the side, and Stephen wants to marry her, but
she says no, and everybody in St. Ogg’s turns against her.”
“Do they have sex?” you ask.
Robert waxes a column of type and sticks it onto the mock newspaper page.
“It’s England,” he says. “People there don’t have sex. Anyway, in the end there’s a big
flood. Maggie and Tom make up. Then they drown.”
“Bummer,” you say. “Is Tom the boyfriend or the brother?”
“The brother,” Robert says.
“Tell me Maggie doesn’t have sex with her brother,” you say.
The Monday-night review sessions are helpful, especially for Robert, who aces each test
on Tuesday. Let’s say you do not fare so well. Despite Robert’s heroic efforts, you score 30s and
40s each week, and you do that well only because Robert has provided you enough details to
make it appear that you have looked beyond Page 7 of the books. After bombing the tests, you sit
silently, defeated again, as the passionate professor leads the thoroughly read rest of the class
through an hour’s discussion about mule-riding men on the moors.
Let’s say you do this week after week, book after book, throughout the semester. Robert
appears never to tire of keeping you afloat. He never scolds you for your nonexistent study
habits, never asks why you don’t just sit down and read the books like everybody else.7
So spring arrives and the semester draws to a close. You stick out the course and never
manage to make it even nearly a quarter of the way through any of the magnificent big British
books. The professor never calls you aside to say you are a slacker, never sends a gentle advisor’s
note that suggests you would be better served in another college major, one that does not require
much reading. Sign language, maybe. Or industrial welding. Instead, he gives you an undeserved
gift, a final grade of C, possibly because he knows you have gotten illicit help and he wants
Robert to feel some sense of success for his efforts.
Let’s say you’re me. Let’s say those unread books still haunt you, their characters floating
unformed through your head, forever waiting for you to read them from Page 1 to Page Last, so
they can live on in your mind and somehow alter your perception, your understanding, of the
world and those who occupy it with you.
Let’s say you’re you. You have read the books. All of them. Your eyes race across the
lines at the speed of light, and flames fly from your fingers as you tear through the pages. You
know the characters, the plots, the themes, the twists, the dialogue, the meanings, the meanings
behind the meanings. You know what a D’Urberville is. You carry these innumerable books with
you, each standing neatly on its shelf in your brain, arranged alphabetically by author, or subject,
or both. You are you, and I am me, and I stand small next to you, awed by your power to conquer
that huge small object you hold in your hands. Please, will you let me know what happens next?
Will you tell me how the story ends?
Let’s say you’re me. Let’s say you walk up the steps of a library, and it is now, it’s today,
27 years later. You wander around the stacks, past millions of words and countless ideas, until
you locate the big British books. Let’s say you find there a distant acquaintance, an English novel 8
from the mid-1800s. Let’s say you slide it off the shelf, open its firm, faded cover and breathe in
the musty aroma of its dingy pages. That, you understand now, is the perfume of velvet and wigs,
of moors and mills. It is the scent of a friend who never gave up on you, and whom you never
thanked enough. It is the smell of years long gone, of opportunities lost, of an education forfeited.
It is everything you do not know. It is the fragrance of regret.
Tim Bass teaches creative writing at the University of North Carolina at Wilmington, and his work has appeared in Small Spiral Notebook, Fugue, Word Riot, and other publications.