The Comps List of Life

ImageIn my graduate program in English, there was this daunting hurdle called comps and this rather lovely associated artifact called the comps list. To be successfully “comped,” you were expected to know a hundred-year period of literature thoroughly and demonstrate that knowledge in an oral exam in front of a committee of your professors. The prospect of comps, for many, inspired angst, hair-tearing, attacks of impostor complex, suspected ulcers, a taste for Carafate, and/or a lifelong aversion to the conference room lined with severe portraits of former faculty where generations of comps had taken place.

But the comps list was a list of books. Books you got to read. And as such, how bad could it be? It reminded me of summer reading programs at my childhood library, where you’d get to stick a red or green or gold foil star on a big public chart for every book you read until you reached a hundred. Comps was just that summer reading program on steroids. So amid all the dread, I felt comforted by the list of books and mentally gave myself a star each time I completed one.

I chose the period 1840–1940 in British literature, and even though the comps list was supposed to be fairly long, no one could ever read enough in that kind of time frame to feel they “have” the literature of that period. So my comps list was necessarily incomplete.

Now, post–grad school, I get a thrill whenever I read a book that really should have been on my comps list but wasn’t. It’s something about the mixture of the new (reading a book for the first time) and the familiar (seeing it raise similar topics and themes as contemporaneous books, seeing it dwell on similar cultural obsessions and hangups). For instance, somehow I had never read Anne Brontë’s The Tenant of Wildfell Hall until last year. Stunning book. And just now I’ve finished Wilkie Collins’s The Moonstone.

One of the things I love about Victorian novels is how much they inspire me to want to sit down and write academic papers about them. Or at the very least, read academic papers that others have sat down to write about them. I’m constantly saying “What??” as I read. The Moonstone was no different: What is the deal with this super-creepy place called the Shivering Sand? What could it possibly be a metaphor for? Why do the trappings of detective fiction get set up only to be undermined? What is being said about India? What does it mean to be innocent and yet guilty? Why are there so many unusual bodies: Rosanna Spearman, Limping Lucy, Ezra with his piebald hair?

My head spinning, I sent out a plea via Facebook and got a slew of recommendations on articles to read on The Moonstone, including a three-page bibliography from a former professor (thanks, Teresa!). She even sent me the above image, which is apparently from a comic-book adaptation of the novel, and which raises all sorts of delicious questions of its own (beginning with “WTF?”). I read several of the recommended articles and got some brilliant answers to the above questions. But the great thing about Victorian novels is that those answers are never the last word; there’s always plenty more that could be said about these endlessly complex and entertaining books.

And happily for me and my cache of gold stars, there are plenty more of them I have yet to discover as well.

Wilkie Collins. The Moonstone. 1868. Public domain iBooks version.