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What We Can Learn from Les Misérables

What We can Learn from Les Misérables

I've spent the last four month reading Les Misérables by Victor Hugo.  It's a massive novel whose chapters are only outnumbered by its acclaims.  If you know (at least the mainstream) story line, you know that it is great story—that is not to be taken for granted, here.  However, the best part about the book is not the story.  Hugo goes into extreme detail about a very minor character—very minor.  It can be frustrating at first, but when you finally get to this character's one significant act the background knowledge adds so much weight that it almost brings tears to your eyes.  However, it is not Hugo's command of detail that makes this book so great either.

What makes this book so great is this one thing: Les Misérables is completely transferable.  It can be understood and appreciated by anyone, in any language.  Hugo accomplishes this in two main ways, namely: poetry and humanity.  I think that we have things to learn from this approach.  So, let's look at them in turn.

Poetry

English poetry often focuses on sounds.

  • Rhyme: correspondence of sound between word endings
  • Rhythm: regular, repeated pattern of movement or sound
  • Alliteration/Assassination: correspondence of initial sound between words

But, not all poetry is like that, obviously.  Hebrew poetry, for instance, focuses on repetition.  In Les Misérables, Victor Hugo uses a different literary device for his poetry.  He uses meaning.  He is crowned king of contrast!  "Up and down" will always carry contrasting meanings regardless of what language is used, and Hugo capitalized on this idea.  My favorite example is when he describes the young, unruly Parisians of the day.

There are two things of which ... he is always wishing for, but never attains—to overthrow the government, and to get his trousers mended.

Humanity

There are certain aspects of life that every human endures, yet they do so alone.  There are struggles and certain joys that one supposes he is the only one ever to face only to discover later on in life (or never at all) that everyone faces the same.  Victor Hugo writes about such events.  C. S. Lewis wrote that "Friendship ... is born at the moment when one man says to another 'What! You too? I thought that no one but myself ...'"

This is quite a true statement.  Thus, as one reads Les Misérables, one feels as though a friendship is being born—between the reader and the characters themselves.  One often finds oneself nodding in agreement and wanting to shout in affirmation.  (Of course, you don't actually do that—it's just a book, right?)  Even if the story befuddles you, the characters frustrate you or the details bore you, you endeavor, endure and enjoy for the sake of friendship.

One of my favorite examples of this makes you roll your eyes and smile knowingly at the same time.

When they had finished, when they had told each other everything, she laid her head on his shoulder, and asked him: "What is your name?" "My name is Marius," he said. "And yours?" "My name is Cosette."

What we can learn

What we can learn from Les Misérables are the very things that make it such a success.  Our websites should be completely transferable across devices and speak beyond our products/services and identify with and start relationships with our clients.

Responsive is not enough

I know that we talk ad nauseam about responsive layouts, but it is not enough for a site to be responsive.  It must then actually respond appropriately.  I have a friend who works for a fine company.  This company hired someone else to build their website.  (I, by the way, take no issue with this.)  Their new site is responsive, and that's great.  However, the designer didn't make sure it responds correctly.  On the homepage of their site there are thirteen team members.  On a standard widescreen monitor, eight of these professionals have their heads cut off by the company's tagline—you can't even see their faces!

This may be responsive, but it is not transferable.  It does not translate well.

Information is not enough

Again, I have been (and continue to be) a huge advocate for blogging information about your particular industry, but mere information is not enough.  (And I think I've said this before.)  You've got to move beyond information to education.  I hope that this blog post (or blog in general) is a good example.  My aim is never to just inform the reader on industrial terms, trends and techniques.  My goal extends beyond information to education.  I want to help the reader to know how to use and utilize, mimic and modify, apply or even avoid all of these things.  In this way, my hope is to help my readers, to identify with what they need (whether they realize it or not) and connect them with the solution.

An owner's manual might be informational, but it does not connect with anyone.

In short, websites need to move beyond bios and product descriptions and actually connect with clients on whatever device they are using.