Saturday, September 23, 2023

A Book Report For Sister Justitia

1960 was three years after the Sputnik crisis.  In the attendant hysteria about the inadequacy of the United States’ pool of competent scientists and engineers, many of the males of my age group had put total emphasis on math and science in high school.  To this emphasis they added the belief that they wouldn’t need to be able to write. The result had been a hoard of engineer candidates incapable of correct and lucid written self expression. 

While I had taken all of the math and science that was offered at Central Catholic, I had never done well enough to allow myself to fall into delusions of being a scientist or an engineer.  Therefore it had been necessary for me to take every subject seriously, even English. Nationwide I was in the minority. 

There had been a reason why I had taken English seriously.  That reason was Sister Justitia.  She was so intimidating that she scared me into taking English seriously.

Sister Justitia was a nun of an order the name of which I had forgotten long before I had forgotten most other things.  Sister Justitia was old. She was apparently British. It was thought that she was trained as a lawyer.  And she was either mean or intense or intensely mean or intensely intense. The English language and its nineteenth century British practitioners were her life.  And her mission in that life was to transfer her love of those things English to the formless lumps of human, American, sophomoric gray matter that were assigned to her annually.  The class she taught was called English.  In her annual attempt to transform her charges from ciphers to something more substantial she assigned a large reading list of novels by mostly nineteenth century, mostly British writers.  There were a few Americans on the list but the real assignments were known to be Dickens and Trollope. 

In a given quarter we were expected to read a certain number of these books and to write and submit book reports.  These book reports were where things began to get dicey.  All high school students had, by the time they had gotten to second year of high school, written and presented myriad book reports: “and then the hero said; and then the villain did; and then they all…”.

Sister Justitia’s book reports were not like that. 

Sister Justitia’s book reports were intended to be works of literature in their own right, albeit based upon something we had been assigned to read. 

Her reports required an analysis of what the writer was apparently saying and what he was really saying and what the basis for the difference might be.  Her reports required a linkage of both of those factors – apparent versus actual viewpoint – to the historic milieu from which the given piece of literature had sprung.  Her reports required the proffering of an opinion on the quality of the literature and the value of the message and an analysis of the effect, if any, that the work had had on the times in which it was written, on other writers from those times and on viewpoints from those times and also on later times, later writers and later viewpoints.  Her reports, most demandingly, had to be in perfectly turned English sentences.  (In between the reading and reports she hammered style, grammar and structure into our heads; a fragment was an automatic “F”.)  “There is no such thing as great writing; there is only great rewriting, and rewriting,” she constantly reminded us.  She told us tales of some of the great writers whose manuscripts were illegible to anyone but themselves once they were in finished form ready for final draft.  To the end of assuring that we actually wrote, rewrote and rewrote we were required to submit our draft documents along with the finished submissions.  The more illegible the drafts, the more credibility she placed on the potential value of the finished documents.  And she had an uncanny ability, some of us discovered, to ferret out those who attempted draft manuscripts with synthetic writing and rewriting. 

It was more or less a daily reign of terror. 


I wrote a number of book reports in Sister Justitia's format that year.

But one book was conspicuously not among those that I reported.

After one encounter with Dickens - Domby and Son - I never read another by him.

Domby had been a slog of the most excruciating type, so I steered clear of Dickens that year and all years since.

Even my late in life discovery of Trollope didn't cause me to think a second time about an aversion long held and seldom questioned.

As a result, I had never read a book by Dickens since Domby

Until recently.

Somewhere after my 80th birthday I decided it would be uncivilized to pass on having never read A Tale of Two Cities.

So, Sister, here is my book report.

First, since I am now older than you were the last time I saw you, I am going to do this by my rules, not yours.

But some of mine turn out to be yours so I think you will think that the format is acceptable.

First in my format is something that I surely wouldn't have noticed when I was 15.

That which I wouldn't have noticed then is the brilliance of the way the story - because, even after all the horror of the Revolution is set aside, for book reporting, Dickens is telling a story - is told; he doesn't just blurt it out; he offers fragments, each beguiling and interesting, and each developing, people, events or relationships, or all of those, or, even more beguiling in the final event, developing clues that aren't very obvious when they appear, but have been presented with enough vigor that they will have been retained for later use and which leap out when their significance is later made known.

Dickens is either a genius, or far out on the spectrum: he can't tell a story; he delivers a story in a matrix; he delivers it by way of containers - cells, I guess, and each container/cell has one or more fragment/cells, and each fragment/cell may, or may not relate to an immediately adjacent fragment/cell; each container has other containers; the last fragment in the current cell points to the cell of many others possible that the reader must open for the next fragment(s)/cell(s).

If you are a linear sort, it will drive you nuts.

If you are non-linear, as I am in Screen Saver, it will make you happy.

A really better way to say what I have just said is that Dickens writes like a fireworks maker makes charges: he puts little pods of stuff together that have different incendiary lifespans that will all explode into fulsome color in due course.

So, Sister, that is my format.

Let's try to get to yours.

What the writer was apparently saying:

As near as I can divine Dickens was on the surface telling a story of a Frenchman who had somehow landed in the Bastille for 18 years, lost his mind, had been somehow removed from the prison after those years and put in the custody of a wineshop owner on rue St Antoine.

For reasons vague - to me - an Englishman in London, a banker, apparently with fiduciary responsibility to the released prisoner goes to Paris, with the prisoner's daughter (she just sort of appears in the plot) and gets the old man back to London where he and his daughter do whatever it is that people like that do.

That's just data.

The data tells me that Dickens was decrying the evils of a society where noblesse does not oblige.

That was what he was apparently saying.

What the writer was really saying:

" I decry a society where noblesse does not oblige".

The format I remember, Sister, falls apart at this point, so I need to conclude with some open field running.

The rest of the story:

Dickens describes the horrors of the Revolution at a level I have never read, or felt, even from Hillary Mantel.

He seems to really hate the guillotine and its children and its fence post pumpkins.

I can't tell how he feels about royalty, but he is over pretty hard on the various versions and levels and echelons of "nobility".

So maybe he just felt bad about Louis becoming a fence post pumpkin.

And only went after the petite nobilite.

I just don't know.

Dickens writes sentences that are, to me often, more incomprehensible than are Faulkner's.

But if I go back and go back and go back, I can usually get what he is saying.

And that apparent waste of time is far from a waste of time.

It is time travel of the most important order.

In short Sister, I yield to your higher powers.

Dickens reigns supreme.

It is interesting to note, however, that the opening paragraph of the chapter titled Monseigneur in the Country consists of three sentence like structures. But they aren't sentences; they are all three fragments.

In fact, there are fragments utilized by the author throughout the book.

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