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Archive for October, 2013

Last night, I realized I hadn’t backed up my /home directory for a while. In fact, my last backup was months ago, rather than days. Horrified, I stayed up late until my files were backed up. I knew that if I didn’t, I would spend long hours brooding, completely convinced that my hard drive would fail the next time I powered up. I have an obsession about backups, and with good reason.

I bought my first computer in the last month of thesis preparation, transitioning from an IBM Selectric, which with its swappable type-balls had once seemed the highest technology I could imagine, but which the computer quickly proved was obsolete.

For the first week, the computer sat at the dining room table, where I learned the basics of WordPerfect while adding the latest versions of my thesis chapters to the files. I was proud of my foresight in having listed about twenty of the basic formatting tasks I needed to do on file cards that I taped to the side of the monitor.

By the time I transferred the hardware a week later to the computer desk that my father made for me, I was convinced that I was adjusting well to the computer. Really, I kept thinking, what was the fuss about? Everyday, I was memorizing several commands, and my thesis was developing far better than it ever had on the typewriter.

The day came that I intended how to backup my files to a floppy. I was sitting at the computer desk, enjoying a late spring day that was warm enough for me to have the balcony door open, luxuriating in spending so many successive days just writing.

Falling into full writing mode, I took a while to realize that the weather had changed. When I finally surfaced from my work, the sun was gone, and the day had turned dark. Around me, in the middle distance, I could hear thunder and I was anticipating enjoying any lightning from my sheltered position. I had no worry at all about the computer – after all, I had a surge protector.

The thunder came closer. Above me, on Burnaby Mountain, it must have been rattling the windows on the campus of Simon Fraser University, where I was studying. I was relaxed, knowing myself safe and dry despite the approaching storm.

But maybe, I told myself, I shouldn’t take any chances. I started to shut down the computer. The thunder sounded directly overhead, and in a panic I reached for the power bar. I had one plug ripped out when the loudest crash of thunder yet sounded just above the roof of my townhouse and the monitor flashed and faded to black.

For several hours, I listened to the storm, pacing and fretting. Half an hour after the last thunder, I tried to turn on the computer and my worst fears were confirmed. I had been too late, and my computer was now an expensive door stop.
One of the worst weeks of my life followed. I was tentatively booked to defend my thesis in six weeks, which meant that I had a month at the most to put it in shape for my committee to read. Any delays, and the committee members would be dispersed for the summer, and I would have to wait three months for the fall semester to defend, instead of venturing out to teach at the community colleges.

Not knowing if anything on the hard drive might be salvaged, I couldn’t wait to find out. Dragging out the Selectric, I did my best to recreate the latest revisions that I had put on the computer. I kept thinking of Hemingway leaving a manuscript on a train and other literary disasters. I started working eighteen hours a day, and dreamed of typing in the few hours of troubled sleep I managed each day.

In the end, I was lucky. The lightning had melted a transistor on the motherboard, which had prevented any surges from reaching the hard drive. My chapters were safe.

The first thing I did was make backups. The next was to make sure that I backed up the hard drive at least once a week, and more often when I’m especially busy. I had a distracted summer, which explains my recent lapses, but you can be sure that I’m going back on a regular schedule, effective as soon as I write the necessary cron job.

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For someone who has taught courses in the 19th Century English novel, I have decidedly unorthodox tastes. For instance, I have yet to read Anthony Trollope or William Thackeray extensively, because I find them almost unbearably superficial.

Instead, my preferences run to the Gothic and psychological, like William Godwin’s Caleb Williams or James Hogg’s Confessions of a Justified Sinner. Although I haven’t taught now for years now, I still keep a library of novels drawn from the century, and periodically renew my acquaintance with old favorites.

Over the years, the book I find myself returning to are:

7.) Emily Bronte, Wuthering Heights: This novel is for the young. It is a vision of romance by someone with little or no first-hand experience, who can see dying for love as a desirable ending. I suspect its intensity scares many scholars, who prefer Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre to it. But if Wuthering Heights is morbid to an extreme, it has ten times the poetry of Jane Eyre, and a tighter structure as well, both of which justify the somewhat guilty pleasure of reading it.

6.) Robert Louis Stevenson, Treasure Island: You know that a writer is under-rated when they are treated as children’s writers. But the vivid descriptions and memorable characterizations show how unfair this treatment is in Stevenson’s case. His work may be light, but it is also intelligent, making it first rate reading just before bedtime.

5.) Charles Dickens, Great Expectations: Dickens is usually at his best when he fictionalizes his early life or dabbles in the macabre. In Great Expectations, he combines both, although it is his early aspirations rather than actual events that inform the plot. Scenes like the meeting of the convict Magwitch in the graveyard, or the passages about the reclusive Miss Havisham are dark and full of wonder. As always in Dickens, comic workers (Joe) and misogynistic portrayals of women (Estella) grate on modern sensibilities, but in general I agree with Dickens that Great Expectations is his finest work.

4.) Wilkie Collins, No Name: No Name is the best depiction of a woman by a man in 19th century literature. Deprived by an accident of her legal rights, a young woman descends to impersonation and fraud to retrieve what is rightfully hers, meeting a comic and grotesque set of characters that out-Dickens Dickens. Naturally, she must repent at the end of the novel, saved by her virtuous sister, but Collins clearly sympathizes with her until then.

3.) Jane Austen, Emma: Today, Austen is popularly known for only Pride and Prejudice, but Emma is far more interestingly psychologically. Somehow, Austen manages to make the protagonist’s mis-perceptions humorous while ensuring that she keeps readers’ sympathies.

2.) Thomas Hardy, Jude the Obscure: Hardy’s knowledge of rural life and lore is unique in his era; although he sometimes uses comic rustics modeled on Shakespeare’s, ultimately he has a familiarity and respect for the working class that few of his contemporaries share. The earnest, self-taught protagonist is a figure with a dignity of tragic proportions – and who surprised me by having an inner life that often sounds like an echo of my own.

1.) George Eliot, Middlemarch: This novel explores different aspects of marriage through a variety of sub-plots. The main plot involves an intelligent, but inexperienced young woman, who, restricted by the roles available to her, makes a disastrous first choice in marriage, and has to live with the consequences. Unlike most of my selections, Middlemarch is more about eccentricity than the macabre, but the depth of characterization make it the greatest English novel of its century, if not of all time.

I could easily double or triple this list, but by the end I would probably be slipping in titles to impress, or because I think more people should read them. These are the books from the 1800s that I have not only read dutifully, but five or six times of my own free will. They are the ones that catch my eye when I’m scanning my bookshelves – the ones I am likely to pull out to re-read a favorite scene, and then find myself starting all over again, renewing my acquaintance with them like with an old friend who has just come into town.

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