New year, new books! This month, I am endeavoring to do something that I rarely do–read two fiction books at the same time! Now, I’ve read fiction mixed with nonfiction in the past, and I have read fiction while listening to fiction via audiobook (not at the same exact time, of course!), but never switching off one good literary text for another. I’m not sure how I’m feeling about this…

Bleak House by Charles Dickens

On Monday, I began reading Bleak House by Charles Dickens. Right away, I was struck by the dense description and characterization, as well as the major themes being presented at the get-go. Here’s the first few lines:

London. Michaelmas Term lately over, and the Lord Chancellor sitting in Lincoln’s Inn Hall. Implacable November weather. As much mud in the streets, as if the waters had but newly retired from the face of the earth, and it would not be wonderful to meet a Megalosaurus, forty feet long or so, waddling like an elephantine lizard up Holborn Hill. Smoke lowering down from chimney-pots, making a soft black drizzle, with flakes of soot in it as big as full-grown snow-flakes–gone into mourning, one might imagine, for the death of the sun. Dogs, indistinguishable in mire. Horses, scarcely better; splashed to their very blinkers. Foot passengers, jostling one another’s umbrellas, in a general infection of ill-temper, and losing their foot-hold at street-corners, where tens of thousands of other foot passengers have been slipping and sliding since the day broke (if this day ever broke), adding new deposits to the crust upon crust of mud, sticking at these points tenaciously to the pavement, and accumulating at compound interest.

What Jane Austen AteWhoo! The description and wording was so good, I couldn’t stop at a few lines, but had to type the whole first paragraph! So, immediately after reading this, I had to refer to my ever faithful What Jane Austen Ate and Charles Dickens Knew by Daniel Pool to look up what and when Michaelmas Term was (a period during which the high courts were in session; Michaelmas: November 2-25) and who the Lord Chancellor was (the chief judge of the Chancery Court). Soon after, I realized that I would probably hit up my Pool quite often while reading. Also, after noticing the multitude of characters being introduced on each page, I decided to create a character list while I read.

Though I love research while reading, this takes a lot of time, and being that Bleak House is over 1000 pages, I know that I will take the entire month of January to finish it. This is good, since it is really a wonderful book, and there is nothing worse than flying through a book you love only to be disappointed that it’s over. However, Bleak House is too dense to read while there are distractions in the house (which is often). So, I decided to read a second book, one that I could read while my husband is watching TV or playing a video game.

A Discovery of Witches

Thus, on a visit to my local bookstore, I found a copy of the much-praised A Discovery of Witches by Deborah Harkness and decided that would be my alternate reading for this week. On Wednesday, I put down my Dickens and my three-page-long list of characters, and started Harkness’ chapter 1:

The leather-bound volume was nothing remarkable. To an ordinary historian, it would have looked no different from hundreds of other manuscripts in Oxford’s Bodleian library, ancient and worn. But I knew there was something odd about it from the moment I collected it.

Pretty good opening, right? It is well-written, takes place in a university library (my favorite kind!), and begins in media res. I should have been hooked. But, I wasn’t! I was still hooked on Esther and Mr. Jarndyce and the leach-like Harold Skimpole! This is why I don’t read two fiction books at once! I can’t just leave one world for the other. I’m hooked on Dickens, and why shouldn’t I be? He is the master novelist!

Skimpole, Esther, Richard, and Coavinses, the debt collector, Bleak House

From right to left: Esther, Richard, Skimpole, and Coavinses, who has come to collect Skimpole's debt.

Alas, I have a goal of reading one book per week, and I was intrigued by the witchiness of Harkness’ novel. Plus, it would definitely come in handy when Modern Warfare 3 is blaring in the background or when Jamie and Adam are blowing something up on Mythbusters. So, I am continuing my reading, with a goal of 100 pages of Harkness a day. And 250 pages of Dickens a week.

I must share that while I am enjoying all of the paranormal stuff in A Discovery of Witches, I am more seduced by all the descriptions of the Bodleian library at Oxford, where the protagonist spends most of her time. I googled this library (more research!) for pictures and was stunned at the beauty of this ancient library! Now, I want to go! Whenever I end up taking my literary vacation in England, the library at Oxford University will be high up on my destination list! It is breathtaking!

Exterior of Bodleian Library

I wish I could read my book in here! Image Credit: John Downing/Rex

Anyways, that is my week in reading. Hope you all are enjoying your books and don’t have to deal with the same dilemma that I am dealing with. Although, I’m pretty lucky–who wouldn’t want two excellent books competing for their attention? I’m like Bella, and Dickens is a sparkly vampire and Harkness is the persistent werewolf. Analogy of the day! Check please, I’m out!

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