It was 1998, six years after the Los Angeles riots, six years after I was sent home from school to watch the destruction on my tv, six years after I walked back to school past the rubble of burnt down Korean stores and stores with signs on them reading “Black Owned” as if the sign was a prayer to the world. Things were better now, but not well. I was in high school and in an AP Honors English class because I could read good, I could read good since the first grade where I read several grades above me, but going to school in a primarily Latino and primarily poor environment, reading good was not seen as anything to aspire to by my classmates, and when you cannot talk about something that is important to you–whether you like it or not–that thing becomes hidden and grows into shame like a mold.
My friends didn’t read for pleasure, therefore, I couldn’t tell them that I liked to, because I was afraid they would read me as being better than they were. It was a strange sort of anxiety that I’ve forgotten with age, but nevertheless, it was as real to me then as financial concerns are now.
My teacher in that high school class, whose face I’ve forgotten as well, plopped a book in front of our desk with a familiar looking black and white face of a little girl. It was Les Miserables and it was a french monstrosity the size of three bibles. I didn’t know what to make of this thing sitting in front of me, but I pictured the great old white men of the past resembling the alien abductors on TV with elongated heads who only communicated in overly verbose sentences that were boring. If people who read good were supposed to read this book and pretend they understood it, pretend they enjoyed it, then maybe my grade school friends were right to look down on the whole practice.
The story I remember reading then is how I experience the musical now, if that makes any sense. It was an emotional experience of validation, as if the book was giving me permission to read good, shining the light on the moldy shame and vaporizing it. Here was a Great Work that was whispering a secret to me that I have kept with me for the rest of my life; great big pompous books can be fun. “It is fine to be lost in pages and pages of Waterloo and of a day in the life of a priest, and it is fine that you will be lost in the pages of strange Wikipedia entries several years from now when you get access to the internet.”
I write this because there are some who would suggest that Victor Hugo’s novel is something void of significance in the same petulant tone that my friends used to berate people who read for leisure, and it feels like a doctor telling me my mother is dead despite the fact that I can feel her pulse.
Jean Val Jean did nothing wrong? Well neither did I, and neither did you, and yet we still suffer, hounded by our Javerts, our moldy shames, our cities ruined by rioting, our lives scarred by destruction, guns, and the law. Les Miserables was the gateway drug to Moby Dick, to Nabokov, to other stranger books that I read on my own because they weren’t in the curriculum. Jan Val Jean’s shame was mine, his choices were mine, and Les Miserables (The Miserables) was my Los Angeles (The Angels), and if nothing else, the story gave me hope that any little bit of fleeting happiness could be wrestled away from the worst of circumstances.
“But then, but then, but then,” the critic says, “can we critique the book by itself and disentangle it from your life?”
And here is where my atheist mind feels a bit of kinship with the bible thumpers, I mean, we can critique the bible, but we can’t say it is worthless, can we?
Also, my bible is 3 bibles.
Should you read Les Miserables? Yeah, give it a shot.