Tag Archives: Process

Finished reading! Now to write…

Back in January, I decided to re-read Les Misérables. I started the next day, and now, exactly ten months later, I’ve finished. There have been times when I had to force myself to keep going, and others when I couldn’t put it down. Victor Hugo’s prose is sometimes impenetrable, sometimes dark, sometimes light, sometimes witty and sometimes even sarcastic.

I ended up reading in fits, going weeks without opening the book while I read lighter (or in some cases, heavier) fare, and then reading a hundred pages in the space of a few days.

That’s how I finished. A few weeks ago I stalled around page 1110 or 1115, a few pages into Marius’ convalescence, but I picked the book up again on Wednesday and plowed through the last 90 pages in three days of lunch hours, an evening at home sick, and the following morning.

I’m waaay behind on writing commentary, only up to the middle of Part Four. It bothers me that after keeping up so well for the first half of the book, I’ve slipped farther and farther behind. The worst part is that it means I’m commenting on chapters I read weeks (or months) ago instead of days, which I think has hurt my writing. The earlier posts were built around comments I made in the moment, on Twitter and later in notes. Now I’m going back after the fact and looking at highlights and occasional notes to jog my memory.

The sewer chase and Javert’s suicide both inspired me to write immediately, so I have those ready, but I’ve got 225 pages worth of story to look back at before I get there.

Goal one: Read the book. Completed!
Goal two: Comment on it all. In progress.

Busy as things are likely to get, I’m still hoping to finish by the end of the year!

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Paper vs. Pixels

A tablet and a breaking paperback.

When I started my epic re-read of Les Misérables, I was reading an old paperback and tweeting my commentary as I went, then using them as scaffolding for an article at the end of each week. The good thing about that was that I was posting things immediately, though on the downside I did have to condense things into 140 characters (sometimes less, since I was trying to link them together with a #ReadingLesMis hashtag), plus of course everything had to be posted, even if it wasn’t particularly interesting on its own.

After a few weeks, reading in a place with no cell reception had me tapping out my notes offline instead of tweeting. This was actually a big improvement, since it meant I could jot down page numbers as reminders, or thoughts that would go well in an article but not in a tweet, and I could work on refining the article anytime I wanted.


Starting with Part Four, “The Idyll in the Rue Plumet and the Epic of the Rue Saint-Denis,” I’ve been reading a digital edition of the same translation on the Kindle app on my Nexus 7. Instead of tweeting or jotting notes down in an email draft, I’ve been using Kindle’s built-in highlight and notes feature.

It’s easier to carry around than the brick. I’m also reading a lot faster (when I have time to, anyway — ironically, I’ve had less time lately, so overall going is slower), because highlighting a sentence is much less of an interruption than setting the book down and tapping out a note on another device. And I don’t have to worry about worsening that tear in the spine, or the pages flipping back while I’m trying to read.

On the other hand, it means I’ll be doing more work when I write up the articles, because I haven’t started composing my commentary yet — just a few notes and a lot of highlights of items I want to mention or quote. I’m 150 pages past the last commentary I published — the ambush in the slums — which is where I switched to reading on the tablet.

The typos bug me, though. I haven’t seen this problem with other e-books, but this one? My best guess is this was scanned in and run through OCR. It’s the same text, format and typesetting as the Penguin Classics edition, down to the page numbers, but there are a lot of errors that aren’t in that print copy, and they’re all visual similarities, not keyboard misses or autocorrects. In particular, the word “die” has become “the” in at least three places (well, four, since one of them is twice in the same sentence!) in the hundred or so pages I’ve read since switching.

And I do miss the at-a-glance indication of how far I am through a section. Flipping forward to see how many pages to the next break, then back, is a lot easier with paper than swiping your finger across a screen. Plus moving that bookmark is much more satisfying (and motivating) than watching the blue line at the bottom of the screen get longer.

The worst part, though, of reading on the tablet? When time is short, it’s awfully tempting to use that time to catch up on emails or other busy-work instead of detoxing your brain with a book. That’s one case where a dedicated device or a physical book has the advantage.

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Les Misérables – Reading Digitally & Matching Translations

Les Misérables Book - Movie Tie-In CoverI learned three nice things about the Kindle movie tie-in edition of Les Misérables today:

  • It’s only $3.
  • It’s the same translation (Norman Denny, 1976) that I’ve been reading from a big stack of paper.
  • Page numbers match the print edition I’ve been reading, at least where I’ve spot-checked.

This will be great for times that I don’t want to lug around the brick, or that I’m out and about and want to work on my next article, or that I planned on reading something else and changed my mind.

Les Misérables: The BrickI’ve occasionally looked at the Isabel F. Hapgood translation (1887) on Project Gutenberg, just to check against something closer to contemporary. It’s very different. It is written in 19th century English, after all, and both writing style and language have changed significantly since then.

There are several other modern translations available. When I started this re-read, I considered looking up either the Fahnestock & MacAfee (1987) or Julie Rose (2009) translations. What I found online suggested that the former sacrificed readability in favor of accuracy to Victor Hugo’s text, and the latter tried so hard to be modern that it set up a cognitive dissonance between the setting and language. (This will become less important over time.) I suspect the Fahnestock & MacAfee translation is the one I looked through in a bookstore back in high school, comparing chapters I had recently read and wondering why they made the choices they did.

In the end, rather than look for a new edition, I reached for the old Penguin Classics copy that has been sitting on a succession of bookshelves since my teen years. I haven’t regretted it. Maybe when I come back to the book again a few years down the line I’ll check out another translation. But when I do, I’ll probably just read it instead of commenting on it. Update: Five years later, I came back to the book and read the 2013 Christine Donougher translation. Here are my first impressions.

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Valjean sure knows how to pick a hiding place

Hunt in DarknessI’m re-reading Victor Hugo’s Les Misérables after 20 years. Start with part 1 or read on.

Now that Valjean has rescued little Cosette from the Thénardiers, the story moves to Paris! But not to the greatest neighborhood. Victor Hugo describes it in such loving details as:

“An interesting and picturesque feature of buildings of this kind is the enormous size of the spiders that infest them.”

“It is possible to conceive of something even more terrible than a hell of suffering, and that is a hell of boredom. If such a hell exists, that stretch of the Boulevard de l’Hôpital might have been the road leading to it.”

It’s to this cheerful spot that Valjean brings Cosette. It’s still better than the Thénardiers’ inn, though.

Becoming Cosette’s surrogate father is as major a turning point for Valjean’s soul as the incident with the bishop. This doesn’t come through in the stage musical at all, but they made it central in the movie, and Victor Hugo flat-out compares the two epiphanies in the novel: The bishop taught him virtue, while Cosette taught him the meaning of love. Hugo even ponders whether Valjean’s no-good-deed-goes-unpunished experience would have sent him back into bitterness if he hadn’t met her.

Les Misérables SoundtrackIf I may digress for a moment (and since I’m writing about Les Misérables, it would only be fitting), I finally listened to the movie soundtrack on its own last night, two months after seeing the film…and I’ve finally placed what “Suddenly” reminds me of: “Someone Else’s Story” from Chess. No wonder it felt like it didn’t fit in this score: it reminds me of a different show!.

Valjean brings his money to Paris sewn into the lining of his coat. I wonder if they used serial numbers in those days.

He hasn’t quite learned how to keep a low profile yet. He becomes known for being generous to the local beggars, and one night one of the regulars doesn’t quite look right when he hands him some money.

Then Javert rents a flat in the same tenement. Uh-oh…

Exit, Pursued by Javert

Before the chase through the nighttime Paris streets, Hugo apologizes for not knowing how much of the area he’s about to describe is still around. Before that apology, he apologizes for mentioning himself. These days it would just be an author’s note, not part of the text.

Streetlights haven’t been lit because of the full moon. That’s not something I would have considered, but if the lights have to be lit by hand, it makes sense that you’d take advantage of efficiencies like that.

Trapped in a dead end, Valjean takes the only escape route he can: up. But he can’t free-climb with Cosette.

Cosette finally starts breaking down over the flight. He tells her she must be quiet, because Mme Thénardier is following them. This works, but only because it scares her even more — after they reach safety, he has to assure her that she’s gone.

An empty garden, a ruined building, sounds of pursuit, midnight hymns, a body with a rope around its neck…and an incredible coincidence, as the gardener (who happens to be awake at midnight) is the man Valjean saved from the runaway cart.

The Hunter

The viewpoint returns to Javert and Valjean’s arrest months before. He actually forgot about him — a job well done, but it’s been done and over with — until reading the news of his death. Then he read about a little girl being “abducted” in Montfermeil, whose mother Fantine had died in a hospital earlier that year, and started to wonder.

By the time Javert shows up to interview the Thénardiers, they’ve realized they don’t want police looking too closely at them, and changed their tune: she left with her grandfather, and Thénardier had simply wanted to keep her around a few more days.

“Javert went back to Paris. ‘Valjean is dead,’ he said to himself, ‘and I’m an ass.'” Well, you’re half-right.

He keeps seeing odd reports, though, and tries to put together enough evidence to make an arrest. He even poses as one of the beggars, hoping his suspect will show up and give him a good look at his face (establishing Javert as a master of disguise). His lack of certainty, coupled with police PR problems at the time, give Valjean enough time to flee. Once he flushes Valjean into a dead end, though, he decides to toy with his prey, which gives him just enough time to escape.


Someone landed on one of these articles this week by searching for “How to read Les Misérables.” I did a search myself, and found WikiHow’s article by that title. “Things you’ll need: Willpower. A copy of Les Misérables” – So true!

Bad reception at the place I had lunch on Wednesday kept me from tweeting my comments, so I had to write them offline. This is probably better, since I don’t have to clutter up my Twitter feed with my notes, and I can still tweet highlights if I want to. I’m going to stick with that plan going forward.

Also, like last week, my commentary ended up being a lot longer than I wanted, so I’ve split it into two articles. The second one will go up in a few days.

Pages covered: 385-424. Continue on to Part 11: the convent.

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