As booksellers, we often overhear customers lamenting that they've always meant to read “that other Jane Austen novel,” or Graham Greene, or Bram Stoker’s Dracula, but just never found the time. We've tried to remedy that with our Classics I Forgot to Read Book Club by providing motivation and a welcoming space to share your thoughts.

In choosing our ‘classics’ over the past few years, we've tried to select titles that had some visibility among readers, but were not necessarily included in the standard high school English class. We've also sampled a range of genres, from mystery (The Long Goodbye) to comedy (Cold Comfort Farm) to stream-of-consciousness (To the Lighthouse). So, whether our picks are already gathering dust on your bookshelves or this is your first encounter with the literary canon, we encourage you to join us on the last Wednesday evening of every month for conversation about the classics.

Wednesday, September 30, 2009

November 2009--A Sentimental Education

by Gustave Flaubert

Revolutions often seem to head in unexpected directions. It's doubtful that the workers and petit-bourgeois who toppled the last Bourbon king of France in 1848 had any notion that they were preparing the way for Napoleon Bonaparte's nephew to take power as Emperor Napoleon III. By the late 1860s, when Flaubert wrote A Sentimental Education, the democratic ideals of 1848 must have seemed like a sad, foolish dream to the veterans of the revolution.

In writing what he referred to as the moral history of his generation, Flaubert is relentless in cataloguing their foibles and flaws. He follows an assorted cast of young men (and a few of their women) through the revolution's buildup, climax, and aftermath. Political passion is a wavering, inconstant flame in these young businessmen, artists, intellectuals, and workers; their commitment is so often pushed aside by greed, lust and vanity that the revolution's initial success seems more surprising than its later downfall. It's to the author's credit, no doubt, that he makes the hero of this autobiographical novel as weak and venal as most of the other characters; a foreshadowing, it seems, of twentieth-century literature's antiheroes. In hindsight, though, perhaps he should have given his generation a little more credit--only a few years after the publication of A Sentimental Education, democracy returned to France for good.