Grate expectations

April 20, 2013

One of the books we read[1] in my senior-year AP English class was Dickens’s Great Expectations. Often when a new book was assigned in an English class, the teacher would distribute dozens of copies of the same edition; this time we each took a book from a mongrel heap overflowing with different publishers, imprints, and formats. I grabbed a copy without looking very closely.

Because of the variety of different versions of this book in the class, the teacher assigned chapters rather than page ranges, and she directed class discussion towards plot and theme rather than turns of phrase or uses of language. The first few reading assignments were a breeze. But then one day she wanted us to read a particular passage together, taking the time for us to each find the paragraph beginning with such-and-such a few pages from the end of chapter so-and-so, and it was at this point that things got weird. I found the paragraph all right, but the text that was being read aloud by a volunteer was much wordier and more verbose than the one I was trying to follow along with.

It transpired that an abridged version had somehow snuck into the school’s supply of Great Expectationses, and by the luck of the draw had ended up in my backpack. The class had a good laugh at this (I found it just as funny as anyone), while the teacher turned beet-red. She apologized profusely, though just for what I’m not quite sure and she never quite said—misrepresenting Dickens by providing me with an ersatz text might well have been a graver sin in her eyes than disrupting her own class or causing potential embarrassment.[2] She gave me another copy, after making absolutely sure that it was the whole book, and told me that it was mine and that she wanted me to keep it.

After class that day, at least three people asked me whether I still had the abridged copy and would I be willing to part with it.

* * *

[1] By “read”, of course, I mean “were supposed to read”.

[2] Come to think of it, for all I know she was apologizing to Dickens at the time, and I just happened to be nearby.

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