Monday, March 10, 2008

The Best Charles Dickens Book

I didn't know it was possible for a book to make me cry. Books, after all, are hardly immersive experiences. They don't engage your senses the way a movie, or a song, or a roller coaster does. Although you use your eyes when you read a book, it's not a visual onslaught the way a TV show or painting is. You can turn music up, as I do when I'm alone in the car, until it surrounds and envelopes you in a cocoon of waves.

But books: you have to keep turning the pages and thinking about what you're reading. So I could never get into a book enough to have it work up real emotions.

Until I read David Copperfield, that is.

I've read a lot of Dickens' work -- Great Expectations, A Christmas Carol, A Tale of Two Cities, Bleak House (don't bother with that last one)-- but I had not gotten around to David Copperfield until I was in Morocco and ran out of things to read. I almost always have a book I'm reading, so even when I'm in a strange country eating sheep eyeballs and touring Jamaa El Fna de Marrakech (the market place in Marrakech), I still have down time (especially if you drink the water in a foreign country) and down time is reading time. Having read all the books I brought with me, I needed some new stuff and found a secondhand book store in Rabat that sold books in English. Their selection was, not surprisingly, poor, but I picked up two that turned out to be worthwhile: Les Miserables, and David Copperfield.

It was David Copperfield that would stay with me for years, although somewhat unexpectedly. I expected that it would be a good book, with the kind of storyline that Dickens loved to tell (growing up in England, usually rags-to-riches, or, if not riches, then rags-to-better-rags) with some plot twists thrown in.

The plot twists are a key point of Dickens' writing, you know. People think Dickens and they think boring old English writer, lumping him in with, well, every other English writer up until J.K. Rowling. But Dickens didn't just write fusty old novels about people tramping the grouse moors. He wrote serials. Dickens' books would be written a little at a time, coming out a chapter or two at a time. (That's a writing style that I admire and emulate, as you can see if you go here. Or here.)

So he had to keep readers wanting to read them - -he had to have great characters and plot twists and interesting things happening. If you just go buy a book, like we do nowadays, then you've paid the author for everything already and if you don't finish the story, it might impact his or her next book but they've already got your money. So if a book stops holding your interest (like Mason & Dixon did for me, many times) you're still out the dough.

But if you serialize a story, you've got to keep the reader coming back for more. (This, too, is how I know that George Lucas never intended that Star Wars be more than one movie. The first one does not have a cliffhanger. Every other movie in that series does. Except number 4, which wraps up all the story lines.) So you do whatever you can to make sure that after they read part 3, they want to go on to part four. You could, for example, reveal a ridiculously improbable pregnancy at the same time as a bunch of monsters appear to attack someone.

Dickens never had to stoop that low. He used some gimmicks, because each book has some great twists, but he mainly relied on perfect stories and characters that you could never ever forget. Aged P? Scrooge? Joe ("J-o") Gargery? Miss Havisham? Traddles and his skeletons? If you've read these books, you instantly pictured those people, with their cannons and counting houses and 'oncommon bolts' and stockings. If you haven't read these books, you have missed out on a great experience.

Dickens' greatest character, though, was the one everyone says is based on him: David Copperfield. I can't tell you much about the book's plot without spoiling too much, but I can tell you that David Copperfield is worthy of two, maybe three, books about his life. As he grows up from a basically happy child ignoring the troubles in his life, meeting interesting people, into a basically happy person, David both observes and moves through the lives of the always-colorful Dickens world, having them shape him as he shapes them.

The part I can't tell you much about is the part that also made me cry. David is in a love triangle. He meets Agnes, who he grows up with a little, and who falls in love with him, and who he loves, but neither one of them really realizes how the other one feels. David then meets Dora, who he also falls in love with, and marries. And David is happy with Dora -- very happy-- while also aware that Agnes was very much right for him, too. And Agnes, meanwhile, may have no choice but to marry Uriah Heep.

Dickens resolves it, and resolves it in a way that is satisfying, thrilling, startling, and beautiful. Like I said, it brought tears to my eyes. And I'm not a guy who cries easily. Very little else in my life has ever made me cry: just getting married, having my babies born, and that part in Titanic where the old people go down with the ship.

So you know this is a good book. It is, in fact, The Best Charles Dickens Book.

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Anonymous said...

Before Dickens you couldn't get an emotional experience from books, but you could from roller coasters and TV shows? That is sad. I'm sorry for you. You have my pity.

AlooFar said...

I love Dickens!

Anonymous said...

I can't believe someone who has read as many books as you have could write the first two paragraphs of your post.

"Books are hardly immersive experiences" because they don't physically use the senses? Writing bypasses the physical world and goes directly to the part of the brain that receives sensory impressions.

This makes it *the most immersive art form created by humankind.* Not what you said.

Anonymous said...

The two anonymous posters pretty much said what I was thinking. Books, in my opinion are far more immersive than short-lived and superficially gratifying things like movies and rollercoasters. But I do have to say that I 100% DISAGREE with you steering people away from Bleak House. It is one of my favorite books of all time. Everyone should read it!!!

Anonymous said...

Lucas did intend for Star Wars to be more than one movie.

That's why in the opening sequence, it says "Episode 4" and not "The Only Episode."

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