Roughing It

Mark Twain
A Signet Classic

There are at least five reasons for skipping through or thoroughly reading Roughing It. The worst reason is it’s a classic which might mean you’ll run into a cheap used copy at a garage sale or it’s assigned school reading. Second, there may be interest in comparison of current writing theory. Today’s clipped brisk speech and measured description is meant to wrestle readers into instant attention that isn’t in this book that has sentences of more than one hundred fifty words. Surprisingly, they are not only readable but enjoyable as they brush the reader along in bumpy Pony Express Rides, desert topographical descriptions and life and death of gold towns. Occasionally mixed in the long sentences are another no-no of uncommon words. Readers need a reasonable vocabulary or a close dictionary if words like nabob and doxology are unfamiliar.

Enjoying a first-person historical account is a third reason. Twain’s time is now over a hundred years ago and his report is far more readable than most pioneer journals and more informative than newspaper and government archives. He shows his biases and wonder in sentences next to a paragraph explaining life in a mining camp that would do a current historical romance novelist some good to read. What seems boring is easily skipped and I think most readers will find parts boring or too long for current attention spans.

I’ll throw in another reason to skip/read it. It’s an interesting sociological history of parts of the west. I’m pretty much a life-long Utah resident and his pieces on Utah and Mormondon explain it here in a way we only mumble to ourselves. The roots of this state took hold during Twain’s time and while they have been deepened and modified with modern life and conveniences, his book still explains an iconic Utah character. California is also observed and a sentence I enjoyed is: .…for nothing can be done on the Pacific coast without a public meeting and an expression of sentiment. He visited the Hawaiian Islands, describing those as well. Social comment I will leave to people more familiar with Hawaii.

Twain was a young man out on his own for the first time when he wrote Roughing It. He was observant and able to write the panorama of comedy, tragedy, charitable, embarrassing and wondrous events he experienced and witnessed. For some, that would be a fifth reason to read it.

My original reason to read it was not any of the above. It had been sitting on my to-read shelf for years and I was taking a summer road trip through Wyoming and Montana. It was a good companion.

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