Thursday, November 30, 2006


The summer I was 19 I took an English class where we read Tom Jones and Clarissa. I'd read Tom Jones before and seen the movie. I re-read it for the class. More challenging was Clarissa. It's one of the worst books I've ever attempted to read. I say attempted because not one of us, including the professor, managed to lay eyes on each of that wretched book's 1,500 over-sized pages.

Our professor reasoned that in the short summer session we could handle reading two (very long) books, despite the short-attention span summer usually entailed. It seemed reasonable to me too. Unfortunately, we were both wrong. He announced, happily, on the first day of class, that we were going to read the unabridged version of Clarissa. In fact, it's almost impossible to buy anything other than an abridged version of this monstrosity. In the end, though, the prof created, on the fly, his own abridged version. When seeing the demoralized looks on our once-eager faces, he started instructing us to skip certain chapters. He also became increasingly frustrated with the sanctimonious moral tone of the book. The thing about Clarissa is that no one reads it because it's a good book. They read it because it is an early book--one of the first novels in the English language. It is revolutionary. It's epistolary (one more reason I hate it). It is also atrocious. You must read Fielding to properly appreciate how atrocious Clarissa is. Fielding and Richardson were contemporaries and Fielding hilariously ridiculed Richardson's first novel (twice, in fact!). You will adore Fielding. It's almost impossible not to love him.

The other reason our professor only wanted us to read two books and write two papers is that immediately at the end of the quarter, he was leaving for a sabbatical in Sofia, Bulgaria. (Why an English professor was taking a sabbatical in Bulgaria is a question for which I don't have an answer. Maybe it was a guest teaching position.) He made a big point of explaining how to pronounce it correctly, which he had hard time with since his daughter was named Sofia. He told us about Sofia (the city) on the first day of class and announced, "I can't take late papers or give incompletes. I want to be completely done with this class when I leave." Again, this seemed perfectly reasonable. I had taken incompletes in college, but not for a while and I didn't anticipate any problem with such a light workload.

In addition to the class, which met four days a week at 10:30 (he gave us Wednesdays off) and TAing for a history class in the afternoons, I was also dating my first serious boyfriend. My day went something like: sleep late, barely make it to class on time; meet my boyfriend for lunch and hanging out; go to teach my section; and go home/read.

We read Tom Jones in no time flat and everyone loved it. Then we started Clarissa and everyone struggled. I was still making it to class and discussing the book...but just barely.

And then my boyfriend broke up with me. I was devastated and I stopped going to class. I couldn't face it. There was a paper due and I didn't turn it in. I stopped reading Clarissa.

When I came up for air, I went back to class. I talked to the professor and apologized for blowing off the paper. He said, "I was worried about you. It wasn't like you to miss class."

What could I say? No one had died. A break-up seemed like such a sorry excuse for screwing up, I couldn't bring myself to mention it. But I was so sad--I'm sure he could tell something was wrong. I said, "I'm sorry, I've just had a lot going on and I'm having a hard time and I don't know what to do."

He made a bargain with me: turn in one paper and he'd base my grade on that. I got that paper in on time and I passed the class with a B+. Was I lucky or what? Sofia saved me.

Grateful for: my understanding professor.

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