Weblog on the Internet and public policy, journalism, virtual community, and more from David Brake, a Canadian academic, consultant and journalist

Archive forOctober, 2007 | back to home

28 October 2007

I have been listening to a free audiobook version of Elizabeth Gaskell’s North and South and finding it curiously compelling – not for its plot or characters but because of the intriguing social attitudes revealed in the book (also available free to read online or download via Google). It starts as a conventional Austen-like romantic novel of manners. Then the heroine’s father, an Anglican clergyman, has a crisis of conscience (bizarrely, never explained in detail) and decides to leave the church and move from the (beautiful) South of England to the (smoky, ill-bred) industrial North (hence the title). To my surprise the daughter’s concern is not primarily over the loss of income or the change of location but over his leaving the faith – it’s hard to imagine now people teetering on the edge of modernity taking their Anglicanism so seriously.

When the action moves to the North, the mannered novel swerves Dickens-wards with a (rather generic) depiction of the suffering of mill workers but is much more directly politically-engaged than I remember Dickens being. It lays out three broad positions on the industrial revolution.

  • Nicholas Higgins, whose daughter died from work-related illness and whose union struck to get enough food for its workers to eat, exemplifies ‘labor’ – worthy of compassion but misguided in his attempts to change the immutable system and prone to drink and violence.
  • John Thornton, a mill-owner, represents capital. While he is seen as lacking compassion, there is evidently a strong if unwilling admiration by Gaskell of his (and capital’s) ruthless drive and enthusiasm and he is given some speeches which remind one of those uttered by Ayn Rand heroes to the effect that he only wants to leave his workers alone (to starve) and be left alone himself.
  • Gaskell’s heroine, Margaret Hale, and her family take a hand-wringing Christian liberal position which I think we are meant to share – it’s too bad that the market crushes the workers in the North but it’s unavoidable and they should take up Christianity to help them bear their troubles without disturbing the social order.

I haven’t reached the end yet but I have a nasty feeling that with the marriage of Ms Hale and Mr Thornton we will be offered a sentimental ending wherein Thornton, influenced by his new wife chooses to help out the deserving poor among his grateful workers without altering his or his fellow mill owners’ Darwinian struggle to keep their profits up. Then again the novel has already contained a few surprises for me…

5 October 2007

Borrowed from my friend nitouche:

These are the top 106 books most often marked as “unread” by LibraryThing‘s users. (Did you know that Google Books now has a ‘display and rate your own library’ feature? And it’s free? Here’s my list of books I have written or contributed to). Anyway, on with the list!

Bold what you have read, italicize those you started but couldn’t finish, strikethrough asterisk for books you have no desire to read, a ? in front for books you never heard of and strike through what you couldn’t stand. Add an asterisk to those you’ve read more than once. Underline those on your to-read list.

? Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell
Anna Karenina
Crime and Punishment
One Hundred Years of Solitude
Wuthering Heights
The Silmarillion
Life of Pi : a novel
The Name of the Rose
Don Quixote
Moby Dick
Ulysses *
The Odyssey
Pride and Prejudice
Jane Eyre

A Tale of Two Cities *
The Brothers Karamazov
Guns, Germs, and Steel: the fates of human societies
War and Peace
Vanity Fair
The Time Traveler’s Wife *
The Iliad
The Blind Assassin *
The Kite Runner *
Mrs. Dalloway *
Great Expectations
? American Gods
Atlas Shrugged
? Reading Lolita in Tehran: a memoir in books
Memoirs of a Geisha
Middlesex *
? Wicked: the life and times of the wicked witch of the West
The Canterbury Tales
? The Historian: a novel
A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man
Love in the Time of Cholera
Brave New World
The Fountainhead
Foucault’s Pendulum

The Count of Monte Cristo
A Clockwork Orange

? Anansi Boys
The Once and Future King
The Grapes of Wrath
The Poisonwood Bible: a novel
1984 *
Angels & Demons *
The Inferno
The Satanic Verses
Sense and Sensibility
The Picture of Dorian Gray *
Mansfield Park
One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest

To the Lighthouse
Tess of the D’Urbervilles
Oliver Twist *
Gulliver’s Travels
Les Misérables
The Corrections
The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay
The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time
The Prince
The Sound and the Fury
Angela’s Ashes : A Memoir *
The God of Small Things
A People’s History of the United States: 1492-present
? Neverwhere
A Confederacy of Dunces
A Short History of Nearly Everything
The Unbearable Lightness of Being
The Scarlet Letter
Eats, Shoots & Leaves
? The Mists of Avalon
? Oryx and Crake: a novel
Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed
? Cloud Atlas
? The Confusion
Northanger Abbey
The Catcher in the Rye

On the Road
The Hunchback of Notre Dame
Freakonomics: a Rogue Economist Explores the Hidden Side of Everything
Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance
The Aeneid
Watership Down
Gravity’s Rainbow
The Hobbit
White Teeth *
Treasure Island
David Copperfield