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I’ve always been interested in learning which books some of my favorite authors admire. Today, to commemorate F. Scott Fitzgerald‘s belated birthday, I looked up the novels Fitzgerald recommended to Sheilah Graham — as chronicled in her memoir, College of One. The list includes Vanity Fair by William Makepeace Thackeray, Madame Bovary by Gustave Flaubert, The Brothers Karamazov by Fyodor Dostoyevsky, Cheri by Colette, A Lost Lady by Willa Cather, and Bleak House by Charles Dickens. According to Graham, Fitzgerald called Bleak House “Dickens’ best novel.” 

At 350,000 words — most editions are close to 1,000 pages — Bleak House is a doorstopper. I find the novel’s sheer size daunting. I can count on two hands the really, really long books I’ve read in my life. I’ve always said I’d rather read five 200-page books than one 1,000-page book (I plead eyestrain), but I have tackled Bleak House — though not at Fitzgerald’s recommendation.

I read an essay on Bleak House in Lectures on Literature by the notoriously critical Vladimir Nabokov (1899-1977) — the Wellesley and Cornell professor best known as author of Lolita. A native of Russia, Nabokov had him some opinions about English literature! But I’ll limit my comments to his thoughts on Bleak House by Charles Dickens.

All we have to do when reading Bleak House is to relax and let our spines take over. Although we read with our minds, the seat of artistic delight is between the shoulder blades. That little shiver is quite certainly the highest form of emotion that humanity has attained when evolving pure art and pure science. Let us worship the spine and its tingle.”

VLADIMIR NABOKOV

In Lectures on Literature, Nabokov praises Bleak House from every direction — but mainly focuses on the novel’s atmosphere, which Nabokov sees as a character in the book. He also lauds the unusual narration techniques — an omniscient third-person narrator alternating with a first person narrator (a young woman named Esther Summerson — the only female narrator in the Dickens canon).

About a decade ago, my New Year’s resolutions included “read Bleak House.” (You know, when you say to yourself: One way or another, I am going to finish this book!) And I enjoyed the novel so much, it didn’t take me a year to reach the final page.

A few years after I’d finished Bleak House, Masterpiece Theatre ran a multi-part adaptation — but I didn’t watch it. I knew the program could never live up to the story I’d pictured in my mind. And I realized that if the program had aired before I’d read the novel, I might never have attempted to make my way through the behemoth. (I’ll admit, I’ve  never been able to get more than halfway through Moby Dick.)

So if you’d like to commemorate F. Scott Fitzgerald’s belated birthday by reading one of his favorite novels, you can find an excellent online version from Pennsylvania State University here. (In an attractive, easy-to-read format.) This version is only 872 pages long. If you read five pages a day, you’ll be finished by spring. Enjoy!