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Biblio File

Great Literature Can Change Your Life: Great Expectations and Mister Pip

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Children standing and reading.  "Kind 'er Serious Stories, it seems.  Rivington Street Library.", Digital ID 94801, New York Public LibraryDo you think that a great work of literature can change your life?  I do.  Since reading Great Expectations by Charles Dickens as a fourteen year old, I have often thought about the many issues that the author raises.  For example, are appearances more important than the morals and ideals a person holds dear? How does gentleman Pip measure up to his blacksmith brother-in-law? In essence, who is the real gentleman? 

When asked by friends which book affected me the most in my life, and I have read many, my answer is always the same. Great Expectations by Charles Dickens. So when Oprah recently picked it with A Tale of Two Cities for her book club, it didn't surprise me.  So, I am in the midst of reading Dickens' Great Expectations again with a twist.  The twist is that along with the Dickens' novel I have recently finished Mister Pip by Lloyd Jones. Several years ago, I started a yearly tradition with a friend of mine with whom I once worked.  If we read a book that we enjoyed, we would put it in a padded brown envelope, bring it over to the post office and mail it with a short note saying how much we enjoyed the book wanting to share it with a fellow bibliophile; I guess you could call it a reader's advisory between friends. The last book I sent Sandra was Sonata For Miriam by Linda Olsson, and she in turn sent me Mister Pip.

Mister Pip is set on the island of Bougainville, an island which has been fighting a war with Papua, New Guinea since 1990.  The protaganist, Matilda is a fourteen year old girl, the same age I was when I first read Great Expectations, living on the island in the early 1990s.  When the island is blockaded, guerrilla warfare ensues between the "Redskins" or government soldiers and the Rambos or island rebels.  Almost everyone has deserted the island leaving for places like Australia which is where Matilda's dad emigrated to four years before.  Unfortunately, all of the educators have left the island as well, and the only person willing to step up to the plate and serve as teacher is Mr. Watts, the only white man in Bougainville. 

This is where the Dickens' novel comes into play. Mr. Watts educates the children by reading a chapter of Great Expectations each day, all fifty-nine chapters.  It is the only book left to read except for the Bible.  Surprisingly, even though these 1990s children have nothing in common with Victorian London, they become engrossed with Pip and wait anxiously to see what he, Estella and Miss Havisham will do in the next chapter.  Each evening they share the chapter with their families.  Some, like Matilda's mom, feel that this white man, Mr. Watts, cannot be trusted.  They fear what is different.  This adds another element to the story, prejudice.  Mr. Watts is married to a native from the island who he met in Australia.  However, as the children wait in anticipation to hear Pip's story, and the parents share their stories and contemplate whether Mr. Watts is on the up and up, they also wait in fear of soldiers who prove to be brutal and unrelenting in their quest to overtake all those left on the island.

Set apart from the brutality of the war is the story about the book and its effect on the lives of the children with whom Mr. Watts shares it.  It is about imagination and the will to survive horrendous deeds.  It is about literature and the way it can influence lives even one hundred years in the future.

I would recommend both of these books for adults and teens. I would also like to know which book has had the greatest impact on your life?

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I love Great Expectations. I

I love Great Expectations. I read this as a child, and again a few years ago. I read it in part because my mum called me Pip. I've read a few of Dickens's novels over the years, but for me this novel is the best, perhaps because there are (tenuous) parallels with my own life, but mostly because it is thematically so rich, lots of room for discourse on poverty/wealth, the city and the countryside, class, love (or the lack of it), compassion, social issues, fantasy and reality, and so on. I moved from the countryside (in Oxfordshire, England) to the city (London), although I wasn't in receipt of a great fortune, nor did I have a benefactor! Coming Up for Air by George Orwell travels the other way, but has a similar effect. In this very underrated novel George Bowling, undergoing a mid-life crisis in the suburbs, returns to visit the Oxfordshire village where he grew up, to find that everything is not as he remembered, that the village has changed, and that he needs to react to that change. This is all a metaphor for the impending Second World War. I don't know if this book had an impact on my life, but I certainly would recommend it!

Coming Up For Air by George Orwell

I just received my library copy of Coming Up For Air! I will let you know what I think of it.

Just finished Coming Up for

Just finished Coming Up for Air by George Orwell. It was great reading that still resonates in our modern digital age. Like Pip from Great Expectations, George Bowling is searching. Pip wants to be a gentleman and wants a ticket to ride from the life he is living. Pip wants to forget his childhood. On the other hand, George Bowling wants a break from his middle class mundane life in the suburbs and goes back searching for the pastoral life he lived as a child. So he goes back to his childhood home, only to find that everything has changed. I guess life is about change for all of us. However, what struck me, and I took away from Coming Up For Air was the idea that you have to appreciate all the little things around you such as the moon we had last evening, and the spring flowers that are starting to bloom after our long New York winter,etc. etc. Those are the "things" in life that, hopefully, will never change. This is the realization that Pip comes to as well in Great Expectations.

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