For example, I only have a few authors hanging on my walls at home, but he is one of them, right next to Mark Twain (Who, strangely, a lot of visitors think is Albert Einstein… Yes, I secretly judge the people who do that each and every time).
Right from the beginning of my exploration into books, I knew his name. When I was six or so, I remember getting a series of “comic” book adaptations of classic literature. I’m sure you remember these books. Opening any page, on one side would be heavily simplified and edited narrative and on the other will be a black-and-white drawing of what is happening. While as an adult I question whether we should be ruining the surprises and endings of great works of literature for kids in books like that, at the time, I couldn’t get enough of them.
Well, I had dozens of these books when I was a kid and most of them were attributed to Charles Dickens. These books were how I first experienced the madness of Miss Havisham and the “pointed” end of Sydney Carton.
When I was entering my teens, my brother played Tiny Tim twice in Grand Rapids Civic Theater’s production of A Christmas Carol (My brother was never a sickly boy, just cursed with adorable curly hair and a nice singing voice). It was a great adaptation (really great actually, the script had it narrated by Marley which I still think is a nice twist). A Christmas Carol was a big deal for a city like Grand Rapids, Michigan and you could see it in the production and the size of the cast.
I would work backstage at the shows. For some reason, the theater (and my parents) didn’t have a problem with a teenager climbing the flys high above the stage or pushing important and possibly dangerous parts of the scenery around. I have many fond memories of helping on the curtains above the stage watching the show going on below me, seeing the audience transfixed by a story they all could probably tell in their sleep if they had to.
I fell in love with that story because of that production. I also fell in love with the idea of “putting on a show” even though I have yet to really write an actual stage play.
My brother would go on to play Oliver in a Hope College Summer Repertory production of Oliver!. While I liked parts of the musical, I must admit if I have to hear “Where is Love” again I will probably scream and do physical harm to myself. Of course, by then I had actually read the real book.
See, I have read most of Dickens’ work. Some of my most proud collection in my bookshelf are my Oxford editions of his work. If anything my obsession with his storytelling and life have only increased. When I made my first trek to Europe after college, I had a book of literary landmarks and I think I hit every one possible for Dickens. One of my favorite moments was visiting his house and actually touching his writing desk. I didn’t squeal out loud, but I did have to bite my tongue from doing so.
Earlier this week, I wrote about works that I would love to adapt for the silver screen if I ever had a chance and one of the works I listed was A Tale of Two Cities. I remember the first time I read the work. It felt so different from his other books, and the atmosphere and tragedy of the stories really moved me. But A Tale of Two Cities also for me is an example of the power of his creative mind. Consider the ending and Sydney is heading to his end. While most writers today would simply have him say “It is a far, far better thing…” Dickens can’t stop there–oh no, he can’t–and Sydney is having visions of the future around the other characters, as if Dickens can’t turn off the part of his mind creating the stories. While for us the tale is ending, for him it is going on and on and on… That to me says everything about how he was wired as a writer.
If I was to point to one of his works as my favorite it would have to be A Christmas Carol. A Christmas Carol, in my humble opinion is one of the few perfect works of literature. Just a word out of place and it would fall, it is that perfect. When my son was born, to help him fall asleep I read the entire book to him over the course of a week and it is a cherished memory for me.
Personally, if there is one thing I can say that Charles Dickens has taught me it is that I have limitations in my own writing ability. I cannot do what he does with plots. I just don’t have it in me to spin more than five plots at a time. I was able to have four plots going at the same time in a screenplay, but that was not a book; especially not a 700-page book like Bleak House. What he had going for him in his mind, I don’t.
Over the year as the world celebrated his 200th birthday, I have read a few articles where people try to speculate what he would be doing today. Some think he would have a blog or be a self-publisher, but I disagree. If Dickens was one thing it was passionate about his writing, even in today’s congested market of want-to-be published authors, he would have fought tooth and nail to play with the big publishing houses. I can’t see him happy with simply having a blog or publishing on his own and hoping it finds an audience. Dickens was a passionate fighter for his stories, and there is no way he would have let us have his stories for cheap.
Suffice to say, if he was alive today he would make sure we know his name and we know his stories, one way or another.