“I couldn’t put it down.”
“You won’t be able to put it down.”
I recently read our local bookstore’s monthly magazine, and the reviews were littered with phrases like this. This seems to be the highest praise we can give a book now: it was so good it made you forget you were reading!
But I want to take a moment and consider the books that are so good we have to put them down. I don’t mean books we put down and lose interest in. No. I mean books so beautiful we must linger over them, savor them, pause from time to time to reflect on a beautiful passage or perhaps write it down somewhere. These are the books we read more and more slowly toward the end, because we do not want to finish the last page and be left outside the world of the story. We do not want these books to end.
These “putdownable” books do not end each chapter with a cliffhanger or punch you in the face with a plot twist; they draw you firmly in, because the author trusts you to keep reading without his hand at the back of your neck, insisting that you turn the page.
Great Expectations is one of these books.
I am—let’s say this first—a huge fan of Dickens. I could go on at length (and have, in many odd contexts) about how much I love every book I’ve ever read by Charles Dickens, especially some of his less popular books like Bleak House and Little Dorrit. In reviewing only one book here, I am practicing great deal of self-restraint.
But Great Expectations is a great place for those new to Dickens to begin (it is where my eldest daughter began), not least because it is well under the 1,000-page threshold. And the Radio Read Along version—with its full reading of the book and the discussions sprinkled throughout—is a fabulous way to read Great Expectations for the first time.
The story is gripping, the characters unforgettable—and I am not wielding cliche here. If you remember one thing, decades later, about this book, it’ll be Miss Havisham. Pip is (like so many Dickensian protagonists) an orphan, raised by his ungentle sister and her gentle and wonderful husband, Joe. When he is presented with a strange opportunity to “come play” at the mansion of the reclusive, mysterious Miss Havisham, his fortunes turn irrevocably from the path that once led to a future spent working as Joe’s apprentice blacksmith. But is that turn a good thing? Or, what’s so great about Pip’s great expectations?
And so I offer this praise of Dickens’s classic work: you will be able to put it down. You’ll want to. You’ll want to read that description of Joe scuttling Pip behind the door to the person nearest you, whether you know them or not. You’ll want to read back over that scene between Mr. Wemmick and Miss Skiffins because it’s too delightful to read just once. You’ll want to soak in that first description of Mrs. Havisham’s place with equal parts horror and wonder. And when you encounter moments of abundant, undeserved grace in this story, you’ll need days to mull them over.
This, friends, is a thoroughly put-downable book. And I mean that in the best possible way.
Also worth noting: James Witmer, author of A Year in the Big, Old Garden, just launched a Kickstarter campaign to fund a companion book about the big, old garden! You can learn more about his campaign here.
Charles Dickens (1861)