Sunday, May 6, 2012

Me and Tess (of the D'Urbervilles): It's Complicated

When I was in high school, my mother kept insisting that I read Tess of the D’Urbervilles by Thomas Hardy.

“You’ll love it!” she said. “It’s one of the classics.”

She directed me to the shelf where I’d find the book. “It’s in the study,” she said. Then she pointed me to its exact location. (My mother knew every book in the entire house’s exact location. It was eerie, because the books really never appeared, to me at least, in any particular order.)

I reluctantly got the book off the shelf.

Afterward, the book sat, neglected, in my room.

“Why don’t you want to read it?” Mom kept asking. She seemed hurt about it.

I never had a good answer. Ultimately, the book, like many of her books, ended up on my shelf. I finally started reading it in college about a year after she had died, but I couldn’t finish it—even though I did like it, just like Mom had insisted. I put it back on the shelf, neglected.

Soon after, during the fall semester of my junior year of college, I was required to read another Thomas Hardy book, The Mayor of Casterbridge, for one of my literature classes. I loved it, just as Mom had said I would love Tess.

Now, Tess of the D’Urbervilles rests on my shelf in Chicago, nestled between my paperback copy of The Mayor of Casterbridge and Wuthering Heights. Until today, it hasn’t come off the shelf since I last moved, two years ago. And before that, I only picked it up to move it to another shelf.

I keep moving the book from place to place. Yet other than always receiving a spot on my crowded bookshelf, it remains neglected. In between books, when I scan my shelves for the next read, sometimes my eyes cross over it, and I feel a little pang. (Why don’t you want to read it? I hear in my head.)

When I picked it up today, I flipped through the pages, wondering if there’d be a bookmark in it from my last failed attempt at reading it. As I suspected, there was—on page 220. 220! I only had 150 pages left to go.

Why didn’t I finish it? I’m sure, back when I was reading it, about nine years ago, I’d have come up with plenty of excuses: I had too much to read already, for class; I didn’t have time; I had lost interest.

But today, when I thought about what book I wanted to read next—I just finished re-reading Pride and Prejudice last night, sigh—I thought about Tess.

I think I’m finally ready.

The thing is, the longer I staunchly refused to read—or finish—the book, the longer I could still be that stubborn teenager, refusing to read the book her mom suggested to her. I’ve been scared to read it, because to read it—ridiculous as it may seem—was to admit that I can’t be that stubborn teenager any longer. To read it was to let go, to move forward. How could I finally read it without being able to call her, to hear her delight when I could say, at last, “Mom, I read Tess! I loved it.”

That phone call cannot happen. It still devastates me. But that is the reality. So really, the only thing to do is simple: Just read the book.

In my mind, she will be reading it with me.

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