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The fourth Bucket Book – those I consider “must reads” is Victor Hugo’s Les Miserables.
I am prejudiced. I’ve never read a book where I thought the movie was better. That prejudice is still true after reading Les Mis. This book has two strengths, only one of which shows up in the play or the movie. That strength is the plot. It is just a great story with intrigue, love, and suspense, set against a background of war and revolution. Who is not drawn to Jean Valjean’s journey of redemption?
Movies and plays, however, have a difficult time capturing the thoughts and inner struggles of characters, which is this book’s other strength. The internal conflicts and motives of the characters find their power from Hugo’s ability to observe life and know the human heart.
The life Hugo observed occurred in a period of grinding, inescapable poverty. At points the reader feels the hopelessness of Jean Valjean’s early life, or of Fantine, or Cosette as a child. The very title of the book describes the plight of the wretched poor in a time of want. Not only did they find themselves void of life’s basic needs, but the deprivation often robbed them of their humanity. Some individuals think the poor are naturally corrupt; Hugo, however, understands poverty tends to rob them of character, when he observes, “…(P)eople rarely fall without becoming degraded….Besides there is a point where the unfortunate and the infamous are associated and confused in a word, a mortal word, les miserables…” still, Hugo remains compassionate, “…when the fall is the furthest, is that not when charity should be the greatest?” No play or movie can communicate all of these observations or convictions.
I thought the book would be a challenge to read, based on its size. I’ve failed at War and Peace three times and I feared the same fate with Les Mis. Instead, I found it a page turner. Hugo’s window into the souls of his characters wouldn’t let me put it down. It only took two bottles of sunscreen an a full week of beach reading to take it all in.
Here are some of the Hugo’s typical observations that make for compelling reading:
Mothers’ arms are made of tenderness, and sweet sleep blesses the child who lies within. (p. 147)
…success is a hideous thing. Its false similarity to merit deceives men. (p. 51)
Every Sunday he (M. Geborand) gave a penny to the old beggar woman at the door of the cathedral. There were six of them to share it. One day the bishop, seeing him perform this act of charity, said to his sister with a smile, “There’s M. Geborand, buying a pennyworth of paradise. (p. 12)
As a pastor, I have found one of the keys to effective preaching is a deep understanding of people. We look, not at what they say, but what they are thinking. I can’t preach effectively without identifying with the congregation and I can’t identify unless I know their hearts. Hugo’s novel teaches me about timeless and genuine fears, motives, and aspirations. Les Mis is a single volume course in human psychology, history, and spiritual formation all in one.
You have inspired me to read the book. What are your other bucket books? I am trying to read The Source from suggestion of Mickie the Israeli tour guide! I have loved the history but its deep! I have skipped lots but enjoyed evenore! Want to try it!
I’ve only listed four so far. Stay tuned.
I’ve not read The Source, but I am intrigued. Let me know what you think.
Joel, I remember when we read this book with you and a little reading group (Irene Hodgkins and Marguerite Ward) at CBC back in the very early ’90s. I’ve always been glad that we read it. I absolutely agree that most books are better than movies and this one certainly is. It also makes the movie and play much more understandable.
Just found this site and I’ll certainly be coming back to “visit” again.
Great to hear from you. I hope you enjoy the Barclay book. It is a great summary of much that he write in his commentaries.
I had forgotten about that reading group, but I do remember now that you remind me. What a fond memory to call to mind.
I think you’d like the W.E. Orchard book, too.
My best to all.
I’ve been casting about and checking your bucket books, looking for another as compelling as my all-time favorite (to date), Cutting for Stone. Re-reading your recommendation of Les Miserables, I found it *FREE* for Kindle on Amazon. So here goes…
I’ve got another bucket book coming this week. Thanks for checking in, Nina.