Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Books That (Alas) I Shall Never Read - The Second in a Series

I think that this series of posts on books I shall never read will in due course scandalize many. The idea that one could, without having read certain famous texts, relegate them to obscurity, challenges our very notions of obligation and judgment. Every important author, and every important book, has his/its adherents and fans, and no noteworthy work "deserves" to be neglected. But we all do this, we all demarcate the territory of our possible attentions, and, like it or not, exclude various works from our probable list of promised duties. We all promise in our conscious life to do many things, but we know in our hearts that most of these resolutions are really empty gestures.

It's difficult for us now to imagine what it must have been like to live without any electronic media. Before the turn of the last Century, in 1900, people lived without telephones, without radios, without televisions, without phonographs or tape recorders or CD's or computers, without even microphones and speakers. The life people lived existed within the compass of their present, physical space; they had no way to transport themselves, aurally, or visually to a remote source, and so tended to remain locked in the reality of the moment. Given this restriction, their imaginations and dream-lives must certainly have been richer than ours, since the possible outlets for diversion were so much more limited than ours are.

Considering this, then, as the context for entertainment in Victorian England, we can perhaps conceive of the vicarious delight and pleasure which people derived from reading, since the written text was the primary means of communication between people, aside from conversation and public speech. Serial novels, which got their start in the 19th Century, were the episodic harbingers of radio and television serials; presented as chapters published in pamphlet form and sold on street corner stands like newspapers and magazines are still in our time, people queued up with anticipation to find out what would happen in the next episode of the story. The great literary figure in this tradition is the Victorian Charles Dickens, an immensely popular novelist, short story and nonfiction writer (and later public performer of his own works). His works made him comparatively rich, and he's probably the first writer to benefit to this degree from the continuous media expansion which we still are witnessing in our own era.

As a writer judged by the standards of our day, Dickens was primarily a spinner of tales, who looked with an unjaundiced eye at the facts and foibles of his time, and presented semi-realistic versions of contemporary society across the spectrum from high to low. His narrative style is straightforward, and very intelligent, but formally not very innovative--structurally or linguistically speaking. His novels address situations and issues in new ways, and they're in many respects a kind of criticism of the life of his time, but their first value is as entertainments to his reading audience. And entertain they certainly did. If dime novels were one's only form of imaginative diversion, think how much attention people paid to stories and poems and reports. The birth and growth of popular literature in the 19th Century is due in large part to Dickens's great ability to charm his audience, even while he was launching scathing indictments against society and government for permitting the evils and privations of his age.

Like any good American school boy growing up in the 1950's, I was encouraged to read Dickens's "school boy novels"--Oliver Twist [1839], David Copperfield [1850], and Great Expectations [1861]. These were presented as thrilling adventure narratives to be appreciated primarily as entertainment, but with important "lessons" about life to be derived, as it were, unconsciously by the immature reader. Later, in high school and college, I read A Tale of Two Cities [1859], and Hard Times [1854]. In addition, I started, but did not finish, Bleak House [1853], and Little Dorrit [1857]. The picture Dickens paints of mid-Victorian England is a colorful one, though frequently dingy and grey. By our standards, living in London must indeed have been a grey, drab experience for many, beset by poverty and deprivations of many kinds. In college I studied Dickens as the documentarian of social dysfunction, and approached this way, his work isn't "fun" but quite serious and gripping.

In later adulthood, I got around to reading The Posthumous Papers of the Pickwick Club [1837, a work of Dickens's youth] (commonly called Pickwick Papers), and I finally was able to appreciate the side of Dickens which most appealed to me, the writer of picaresque local color and humorous satire. Though this work doesn't aspire to the heights of Little Dorrit or Bleak House, it nevertheless is written for adults, though without the political persuasion which he is preoccupied with in his mature works.

I think, to put it simply, I have read enough Dickens. I don't plan to read The Life and Adventures of Nicholas Nickleby, or Barnaby Rudge, or The Old Curiosity Shop, or Dombey and Son, or Our Mutual Friend, or The Christmas Stories, or Martin Chuzzlewit, Sketches by Boz, or Pictures from Italy. There is only so much busily peopled Victorian social history I'm interested in, and I think I've filled my card. I get it, I understand how fascinating people in Victorian England were, and I understand how important it was (and is) to address social distress in the modern world. It's possible, given a few days trapped inside some remote bed and breakfast inn during the coming twilight years of my life, that I will discover a copy of Barnaby Rudge by my bedside as a relentless storm rages without, and be seduced (of necessity) with another long, wordy Dickens narrative. But I won't go looking for it. I've done my Dickens, and we're happy with each other. Alas, no more Dickens for me.


Conrad DiDiodato said...


I believe you've read the essential Dickens.

J said...

Many people, even Mericans read a bit of Dickens the sentimentalist---Oliver Twist, Copperfield, Xmas Carol, Tale of Two Cities (tho not quite as mushy as the aforemention). The Dickens of Great Expectations or Bleak House (which I too have yet to finish) was a bit different creature. Not my fave writer (then, I'd rather read Hegel than Hawthorne or Willard Quine instead of Ginny Wolfe) --but he had a big heart, like say Joe Gargery hisself. Authentic as the beret-posse once said, and mo' economically informed than many realize--but many in Consumerland only get the Artful Dodger BS and not the intense urban realism that Dickens often portrayed so deftly (in comparison to DickensSpeak the usual victorian sap--Brontes etc--seems like PBS PMS product). One's tempted to say a Dickens' writing and journalism did more good than an experimentalist such as Joyce (or yr fave beatnik) ever would, however ordinary Dickens' writing seems now. Maybe the Geist of Hegel agrees

Anonymous said...

the ONLY Dickens book I've ever read was

A Tale of Two Cities...

well not exactly

I saw the movie both the silent one and the Coleman one


I did see another Dickens novel the one with W.C Fields on the roof

I did,

however, have The Entire Classic Comic Books series
The Three Musketeers was "cool"

the Disney version was even better with Micky and Donald and etc...

nothing like those 19 th century books

read in the outhouse The Sears Catalogue..

and in England that mag The Pearl

which I betcha all oft them issued is somewhere on the net unexpurgated


J said...

Dickens still scares the bogus, the hipster-nihilist, the wannabe-Proust--a similar effect may be produced from say Wordsworth, perhaps. In that sense, Dickens' writing remains valuable. He may have been sentimental at times, but is not a moral relativist. Scrooge the capitalist--instantiate, Madoff, etc-- has been tried and found guilty really: only via the vision does he alter his greedy, usurious ways and have a chance at something like redemption.

Art Durkee said...

I largely agree. The only Dickens I have ever re-read is "A Christmas Carol," and that partly to demonstrate to friends how very much our modern conception of Xmas celebrations are based on Dickens and on Clement Moore.

A friend of mine whose tastes are rather Victorian recently admitted to me that he'd never read any Dickens. So I gave him a couple of the better-known novels. He read them, then reported back to me that he hadn't enjoyed reading them very much *as entertainments* and didn't feel the need to read anymore Dickens. He feels like he's fulfilled his duty, and gave Dickens a fair shot. And that's enough.