Can’t beat the Dickens

photo-11Yesterday I went to the library to pick out a book to take with me to California. I knew exactly what I would bring, David Copperfield. This was the very first Dickens I devoured; I had it with me during my first trip overseas, a tour of Scotland with my parents when I was 13.

Aside from generally shunning the old farts, and grunting taciturnly during roadside Highland picnics (an unfortunate encounter with haggas, compelled me to eat nothing but canned Heinz potato salad thereafter), I kept my nose glued to that book as views of lochs and mountains, meadows and sheep rolled gorgeously past. This was a book to get lost in.

I loved books exceptionally until my son was born. Then a strange thing happened. I found that I could no longer endure even the slightest hint of human pain written down on the page. I didn’t know this until I launched into Anna Karenina during my first weeks of mothering. I was perfectly content in the beginning, but as the story progressed and Anna’s agony increased, so did my anxiety. I simply couldn’t bear the “oncoming train” of sorrows, and the idea of having her motherhood ripped from her sent me over the edge.

And so I read Anna Karenina by skipping the Anna passages entirely. I happily read about that great character of agrarian reform and family bond, Konstantin Dmitrievich Levin, who lives at the edge of her tale. All good stories have their shadowy parts, so naturally my reading selections became quite limited—romances, short stories (shorter pain), magazines. This applied to films as well: no child violence, beaten or imprisoned women, horror, even suspense movies “done me in.” Fortunately, I had read most of the canon of English lit before I went wimp, else I would be a total illiterate.

To avert undue pain, before I started it I skimmed through Copperfield to reassure myself that all ends well (Oh Agnes, oh my soul, so may thy face be by me when I close my life indeed …). Properly convinced, I am again happily entrenched. This time, however, I read this work with greatest wonder.

Every page is wrought with astonishing detail, humor, poetry—and loving foreboding. I know Little Emily comes to a great, sad end but because of the majesty of his vision and the tenderness with which he wraps the good, I am willing to take the walk with him.

His effortless metaphor makes me think about the world differently, that experience is drenched in allegories we are too blind to notice. This: A passage in which he strolls the Yarmouth sands with Little Emily and reflects how, had he known the fate that would befall her, he might not have leapt out to catch her when she seemed about to plunge from a weir into the water. He then writes in the next paragraph about a starfish:

We strolled a long way, and loaded ourselves with things we thought curious, and put some stranded star-fish carefully back into the water–I hardly know enough of the race to be quite certain whether they had reason to feel obliged to us for doing so, or the reverse …

And a delicious footnote from the editor there, that the passage is reminiscent of the poet Crabbe(!):  ‘Here dull and lifeless he’d lie down and trace/How sidelong crabs had scrawled their crooked race.’

Journeys. Stories. Words. I feel glad to be alive.