Preparing for the Les Misérables Chapter-a-Day Read-along
The Read-along Is Nearly Here
It’s less than a week until the Les Misérables Chapter-a-Day Read-along begins, and I’m excited to have so many of you along for the ride. If you don’t know what I’m talking about, or if you haven’t had the chance to sign up, be sure to read the post announcing the read-along for all details. Also, be sure to follow this blog so you don’t miss any posts about the read-along throughout the year. There are lots of ways to follow along. You can follow via email by entering your email address in the subscription box on the right sidebar on the web site. Or, you can follow me on Twitter @nsenger, or you can subscribe in a blog reader via RSS. The hashtag for the read-along will be #LesMisReadalong.
Don’t forget to download the full schedule in pdf format. I’m going to print it out and stick it to the refrigerator so my wife and I can keep on track. Speaking of my wife, the read-along would make a great activity for you and your spouse or significant other to do together. Maybe you could read to each other in the morning or at night, or you could read independently and talk to teach other about the book over dinner. Maybe you’ve got some friends at work who are looking for something positive to do together. I’d love for the read-along to sweep the reading world!
Librivox Free Audio Recording
One resource I forgot to mention on the announcement page was the free unabridged audio recording of Les Misérables available on Librivox.org. For those unfamiliar with the site, Librivox is a place where volunteers record audiobooks of public domain titles. Since Les Misérables was published 1862, it has long been in the public domain. A group of volunteers has collaborated to record the entire novel, conveniently broken into many different sound files. The different chapters range in length from about 6 minutes to as long as 48 minutes, and a different reader reads each section. Of course there are other audiobook options as well, but the Librivox version has the benefit of being free and easily accessible. The entire book can be downloaded in mp3 format or you can subscribe to the book as an iTunes podcast.
Things to Know Before Reading Les Misérables
I thought it might be helpful to know a few things about the book before beginning such a long journey. Don’t worry, no spoilers, but a little bit of background might set the stage a bit.
First, as you are probably aware, Les Misérables was originally written in French by Victor Hugo. That means you are most likely reading a translation of the novel (unless, of course, you have the enviable gift of being able to read it in the original French!). Because we are all reading different translations, our chapter titles and shared quotes will be slightly different. That’s ok, and may even lead to some great discussions about the art of translation. My edition, for example, is translated by Christine Donougher. She has made the bold move of translating the title into English, something I have not seen before. She calls the book, The Wretched. Others might translate the title as “The Miserable Ones,” or “The Wretched Poor.” So right away translation becomes an important issue. In fact, in The Novel of the Century, David Bellos makes this shocking statement, “The lexical richness of Les Misérables creates a nice paradox: it is one of the most translated texts in world literature, yet nobody knows or has ever known for sure what all the words in it means.”
The second point I’d like to make is that reading Hugo’s preface to the novel before we start on January 1st would be a very good idea. The preface, which is one long, paragraph-length sentence, states Hugo’s ambitious purpose for the novel, and alerts the reader to potential themes. You will find the gist of the preface to be very similar to what Hugo says in a letter written in 1862:
I want to destroy human inevitability. I condemn slavery, I chase out poverty, I instruct ignorance, I treat illness, I light up the night, I hate hatred. That is what I am and that is why I have written The Wretched. As I see it, The Wretched is nothing other than a book having fraternity as its foundation and progress as its summit.
And finally, know from the outset that the unabridged Les Misérables is full of digressions both historical and philosophical. Also, Hugo will switch storylines and timelines. You’re going to begin a new chapter and wonder if you’re even reading the same book. Where were the characters I was just reading about? Why is there an essay on Providence stuck in the middle my story, for crying out loud? How long is this dream going to go on, anyway?
Patience is needed. There are several reasons for these digressions and shifts, but try to take them in stride, trusting that all will make sense. Hugo was nothing if not organized and deliberate in his writing. Les Misérables was written over a twenty year span, and with Hugo being a poet, very little is present in the book that is not deliberately placed there. As David Bellos puts it in The Novel of the Century,
What makes Les Misérables such an amazing work of art is that despite its length, its complexity and its vast scope, every detail and every dimension — even if not made explicit — was designed, calculated and decided by the author.
In Good Company
As we begin Les Misérables, know that we join countless people through the centuries who have loved this book. According to David Bellos, Parts I and II sold out in two days. When Parts II and III were published, demand was so high that Pagnerre, the Paris bookseller, put his entire stock of other books into storage so he could fit a “mountain of Misérables” in his store. The stack of books was so high and so heavy that Pagnerre worried that his floor would collapse from the strain.
Pagnerre may have been worried about his floors, but we need not be worried about collapsing under the strain of so large a book because we will be taking it in bite-sized pieces. It’s going to be a great adventure!