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Far Away by the Something-or-Other: How a Kid from New Jersey Learned to Love Victorian Novels

3rd April 2017 - Jason Rekulak

Far Away by the Something-or-Other: How a Kid from New Jersey Learned to Love Victorian Novels

 

Jason RekulakJason Rekulak is the Publisher of Quirk Books, an independent publishing house based in Philadelphia, USA, known for New York Times bestsellers like Pride and Prejudice and Zombies and Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children. Jason lives with his wife and two children in Philadelphia. www.jasonrekulak.com. His debut novel, The Impossible Fortress, tells the story of an aspiring video game designer (and terrible student) growing up in the 1980s. For more information visit theimpossiblefortress.com.

Author photo © Courtney Apple

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Impossible Fortress coverThomas Hardy’s novel Far from the Madding Crowd is a book that changed my life, but at first glance it didn’t look like much. The year was 1987 and I was sixteen years old, growing up in a working-class part of New Jersey. My high school English teacher, Mrs. S, dropped a tattered paperback on my desk.

The cover featured an illustration of an empty field.

No people. No animals. Just grass and a pale blue sky.

And what an awful title! Far From the Madding Crowd? At age sixteen, my idea of a great title was A Nightmare on Elm Street.  Or The Return of the Living Dead. I felt a good title ought to promise something.

“What’s a Madding Crowd?” I asked.

“It’s an expression,” Mrs. S explained.

“What does it mean?”

“Read the book,” she said.

This was her answer to nearly every question: Read the book.  What’s a heart of darkness? Read the book.  Why does Ahab hate the whale so much? Read the book, Jason, read the book.

I had no interest in reading the book.

“This is one of my favorite Victorian novels,” Mrs. S explained.  “It’s about a shepherd named Gabriel Oak. He falls in love with a woman named Bathsheba Everdene. She’s very beautiful and very independent, but she’s also vain and a little insensitive.”

I opened to page one and read:

When Farmer Oak smiled, the corners of his mouth spread till they were within an unimportant distance of his ears, his eyes were reduced to chinks, and diverging wrinkles appeared round them, extending upon his countenance like the rays in a rudimentary sketch of the rising sun.

By the end of that first sentence, I was ready to pitch the book across the classroom. I didn’t read another line of Far From the Madding Crowd. Nor did I read any part of Madame Bovary, Pride and Prejudice, Jane Eyre, King Lear, or any of the other books assigned by Mrs. S.

At age sixteen, I couldn’t imagine these texts had anything to offer me. I was raised on Sesame Street, MTV, Pac Man, and Steven Spielberg; my attention span for books and films was incredibly short. During English class, I would sit at my desk with a notebook hidden in my lap, and I’d use the time to design video games that I programmed on my Commodore 64 computer. I’d write little patches of BASIC code, or I’d sketch spaceships or aliens on graph paper. My plan was to start my own video game company, and I didn’t want to waste time reading long books about women living on farms. 

So Far From the Madding Crowd went into my locker, untouched and unread and eventually forgotten.

Three years later, I found myself at a university studying computer science, still planning for a career in video game design. I was dating a beautiful young woman named E. We were together very briefly, maybe five weeks, and then E abruptly broke up with me.  I had fallen for her in a major way and I was devastated.  I decided that E was vain and selfish and full of herself. But I wanted to be with her anyway.

And then something in my memory clicked: I realised my predicament was just like that book! That book from high school!  Far Away by the Something-or-Other!  I was a good and honest and decent young man – just like Gabriel Oak!  And here was E, the beautiful and vain and independent E, treating me poorly, toying with my feelings, just like Bathsheba Everdene!

I remembered Mrs. S pacing in the front of our classroom, describing Gabriel’s unrequited love for Bathsheba. And I remembered Mrs. S describing how the novel ended with Gabriel and Bathsheba’s marriage. Gabriel actually prevailed, the good guy won! 

But how? 

Suddenly, I was desperate to read Far from the Whatever-It-Was-Called.

I went to the university bookstore and tracked down a copy. While my roommates were busy getting drunk in the apartment next door, I sat down at my desk with the book and a pencil. Again I confronted that deadly first sentence, all forty-seven words of it:

When Farmer Oak smiled, the corners of his mouth spread till they were within an unimportant distance of his ears, his eyes were reduced to chinks, and diverging wrinkles appeared round them, extending upon his countenance like the rays in a rudimentary sketch of the rising sun.

Oh, God.  I took a deep breath.  I forced myself to keep going.  I reminded myself that I wasn’t reading for entertainment.  I was reading for information. I was like Indiana Jones, searching an ancient text for carefully encoded secrets. I had to be patient. I read slowly and methodically with my pencil in hand, underlining and highlighting every exchange between Gabriel and Bathsheba.

The first few nights were slow-going -- but by the fourth night, as I grew accustomed to Hardy’s style, the reading got easier. To my surprise, I found myself caught up in the story.  I was shocked when Bathsheba married the duplicitous Sergeant Troy, and even more shocked when Troy was murdered by his jealous neighbour William Boldwood. 

I began to understand that the title Far From the Madding Crowd was actually ironic -- it promised a quiet pastoral story, far from the hustle and bustle of the city, but in fact the book has a crazy plot full of sex, murder, jealousy, burning buildings, thunderstorms, the mass slaughter of two hundred sheep, and a coffin with a gruesome surprise.

By the time I finished Far from the Madding Crowd, I had nearly forgotten about E because I had fallen in love with a book. I loved the unforgiving rural landscape of the story, where disaster and tragedy struck without warning. I loved Gabriel’s quiet nobility, and I marveled that some English shepherd in 1874 could understand exactly how I felt to be rejected by a girl from New Jersey in 1990. 

And I admired Gabriel’s response to being jilted. He doesn’t rant or rage, or cry or complain or beg for a second chance. He just accepts her decision and tries to move on. He offers Bathsheba his friendship, immerses himself in meaningful work, and surrounds himself with friends. Guys, if there’s a better way to handle rejection, I don’t know it.

I went back to the library and borrowed two more novels by Thomas Hardy, The Mayor of Casterbridge and Tess of the D’Urbervilles. Next I tried Middlemarch (because everyone compared Thomas Hardy to George Eliot) and then Great Expectations.  Soon after that, I walked into a used bookstore and spent $60 on a secondhand set of the Oxford Illustrated Dickens, all 21 volumes. And roughly one year after that, I changed my major from Computer Science to English Literature (much to the horror and dismay of my parents, who feared I would never find meaningful employment).

Instead of starting my own video game company, I ended up working in book publishing as an editor. In 1999 I joined forces with a friend starting a small press that came to be known as Quirk Books. Our publishing house specialized in strange and unusual books, and my years of studying Victorian novels would eventually pay off in an unexpected way. One day in 2008, I had the idea of hiring a writer to add zombies to a Jane Austen novel, with the goal of making the original text more palatable for teenagers. The result was Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, an international bestseller, and now a film starring Lily James and Matt Smith. Quirk followed that title with other “mash-ups” like Sense and Sensibility and Sea Monsters, Android Karenina, and The Meowmorphosis (in which Gregor Samsa awakens one morning to find himself changed into a cute fuzzy kitten).

More recently I’ve worked with an author named Ian Doescher who is rewriting all of the Star Wars films in iambic pentameter, and adapting the stories as if they were Shakespearean dramas. The series has sold nearly one million books – and the latest volume, William Shakespeare’s The Force Doth Awaken: Star Wars Part the Seventh, arrives in bookstores this autumn.

Over the years I’ve received many kind notes from teachers who have used these mash-up books in their classrooms, and I suppose that brings this little story full-circle. You could say I owe these books (and in fact my entire career) to Mrs. S, the tireless school teacher who introduced me to Thomas Hardy way back in 1987.  Read the book, she kept urging me. Read the book, Jason, read the book. I should send her flowers.

 

 

 

 

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