Category Archives: Literature

Sloppy Thinking: Exhibit #5

leo-tolstoy

From time to time, I’m responding to various ideas that I think are prime examples of sloppy thinking. Such as:

All happy families resemble one another,                                        each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.

-Leo Tolstoy, Anna Karenina

This is one of the most memorable opening lines in all of world literature. It’s right up there with “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times…” and “Call me Ishmael.”

But, memorable as it may be, it’s just not true. In fact, the opposite is true.

All unhappy families resemble each other because the few components that go into making a family unhappy — impatience, selfishness, bitterness, resentment — are all self-centered. All self-serving people look pretty much alike. Under the same roo, these people can only take their family into places of misery and more misery. And misery — however you arrive — just looks miserable.

The components that produce a happy family, such as love for each other, the desire to support each other, efforts not to offend, the willingness to forgive when offended, hoping the best for each other… are all other-oriented.

And when these are active, the individual members are free to flourish into their own unique personalities. Mix and match those flourishing personalities together and you get a family that is like no other.

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On Reading Don Quixote

At the beginning of this year I made a list of New Year’s Reading Resolutions (see January 2 blog): “Twelve books, one per month, that I’ve never read, that I really do want to read, expect to enjoy reading and anticipate benefitting from reading.” My intention is that I’ll post a blog at the end of each month (or close to it) with some thoughts and observations about or from the books. (You, of course, are more than welcome to add your own knowledge to what little I have.) During the month of July my reading was Don Quixote by Miguel de Cervantes.

Generally regarded as the “Father of the Modern Novel” Don Quixote is actually entitled The Ingenious Gentleman Don Quixote of La Mancha. Published in two volumes a decade apart, in 1605 and 1615, we are, within those pages, introduced to the most famous knight in all of literature: “The Knight of the Sad Countenance.”

This is a funny, fun book.

The plot is not complex. An elderly madman who has read too many stories of knights, battles, and damsels in distress falls “into the strangest fancy that ever a mad man had in the whole world. He thought it fit and proper, both in order to increase his renown and to serve the state, to turn knight errant and travel through the world with horse and armour in search of adventures, following in every way the practice of knights errant he had read of, redressing all manner of wrongs….”

But it is a novel of depth.

Russian novelist, Vladamir Nabakov, wrote, “The parody that is Quixote becomes paragon.”

“It is not the responsibility of knights errant to discover whether the afflicted, the enchained and the oppressed whom they encounter on the road are reduced to these circumstances and suffer this distress for their vices, or for their virtues: the knight’s sole responsibility is to succour them as people in need, having eyes only for their sufferings, not for their misdeeds.”  –Don Quixote

The great Russian author Fyodor Dostoyevsky wrote, “One of the most profound and mysterious aspects of the human spirit [is] reflected in this narrative.”

Quixote takes his neighbor, Sancho Panza, on as his squire. Panza is the ultimate realist and between him and Quixote you have both sides of human nature represented.

According to David Allen White (former professor of Shakespeare and Literature at the United States Naval Academy), you have “all that is idealistic, glorious, uplifting and everything that is down-to-earth, practical, commonsensical. We all have these two sides…

“[Quixote] doesn’t know who he is, but is fighting for all the things we should be fighting for…

“At the core of every adventure is something real, something good, something positive… ”

If you think you might want to read, Don Quixote, let me encourage you with this information:

  • There is no consistent plot. You can pick it up, put it down and a month later pick it up again and not miss anything. This is because it moves from one adventure to another.   
  • The best translation is by J. M. Cohen (1950). Penquin Classics, Barnes and Noble, and The Franklin Library have all published  this one, which, according to White, this is the one that “gets the joke and can deliver the comedy.”
  • Because, at its core, it concerns the human spirit, people of all ages can read, enjoy and benefit from Don Quixote.

FWI: Quixote and King Lear; Cervantes and Shakespeare

  • Don Quixote was published in two parts. The first in 1605, the same time William Shakespeare was writing King Lear, about another mad old man.
  • The sequel was published in 1615, a year before Cervantes died. He died the day before Shakespeare died.  The greatest Spanish writer and the greatest English writer (certainly of their day).

During the month of August, I’ll be reading Alexander Dumas’ The Three Musketeers. Join me, if you’d like.

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Reading Melville’s MOBY DICK

At the beginning of this year I made a list of New Year’s Reading Resolutions (see January 2 blog): “Twelve books, one per month, that I’ve never read, that I really do want to read, expect to enjoy reading and anticipate benefitting from reading.” My intention is that I’ll post a blog at the end of each month (or close to it) with some thoughts and observations about or from the books. (You, of course, are more than welcome to add your own knowledge to what little I have.) During the month of June my reading was Moby Dick.

“Call me Ishmael” is one of the most famous opening lines in all of literature. And thus begins what is held by many to be “the great American novel”: Moby Dick.

You begin to suspect that you’ve entered a feast of language when the very first paragraph offers up: “Whenever I find myself growing grim about the mouth; whenever it is a damp, drizzly November in my soul; whenever I find myself involuntarily pausing before coffin warehouses, and bringing up the rear of every funeral I meet; and especially whenever my hypos get such an upper hand of me that it requires a strong moral principle to prevent me from deliberately stepping into the street, and methodically knocking people’s hats off – then, I account it high time to get to sea as soon as I can.”

And, indeed, it is a feast. It makes one wonder why the novel was so largely ignored by several generations after its publication. Its author, Herman Melville, had established himself through his first two novels, Typee and Omoo. Moby Dick was his sixth novel. Then his tales of Bartleby the Scrivener and Benito Cereno were favorably received. But his second greatest work, his short novel, Billy Budd,  wasn’t published until thirty-three years after his death, 1924, during a resurrection of his reputation.

Perhaps it is too much of a feast for some. The story-line is well-known: narrated by the character Ishmael, it recounts the mad quest by the crazed Captain Ahab to avenge the loss of his leg by the great white whale, Moby Dick. But it requires patience before you get to the main action of the novel. And perhaps, for some, there will be too much information about “Cetology”, the science of whales.

But I maintain that the novel is well worth the time it takes to absorb the richness of the language as well as, perhaps, exploring the various themes that are offered up.

Bainard Cowen, in Invitation to the Classics (edited by Louise Cowan and Os Guinness) suggests that there are at least the following:

  • The perilous destiny of America in the world
  • Western civilization at a turning point in history
  • The mind encountering nature and alien peoples
  • The soul’s quest for redemption while caught in the downward pull of the world
  • The enmity between human will and the natural order – and the torrent of destruction this brings

Interestingly, according to Cowan, many existentialists have seen Captain Ahab as the hero of the novel, and “hail him for noble rebellion.”

“Melville’s letters, however, give us the key to the true significance of his work. He refers to the Sermon on the Mount and its unfamiliarity to most Christians. In Ishmael he has created a character who – poor in spirit, merciful, pure in heart and meek – mourns and hungers after righteousness. And, at the end, after surviving the whirlpool  created by the sinking ship, it is he who will symbolically inherit the earth.”

During the month of July, I’ll be reading Don Quixote, by Cervantes. Join me, if you’d like.

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Reading Augustine’s CONFESSIONS

At the beginning of this year I made a list of New Year’s Reading Resolutions (see January 2 blog): “Twelve books, one per month, that I’ve never read, that I really do want to read, expect to enjoy reading and anticipate benefitting from reading.” My intention is that I’ll post a blog at the end of each month (or close to it) with some thoughts and observations about or from the books. (You, of course, are more than welcome to add your own knowledge to what little I have.) During the month of May my reading was The C0nfessions of Saint Augustine, widely seen as the first Western autobiography ever written.

When I first began to read the Confessions I started with a translation by The Reverend Edward Bouverie Pusey. He lived from 1800 – 1882. In the first paragraph there were 17 “Thee”s, 7 “Thy”s, 7 “Thou”s, 2 “art”s and an smattering of “resisteth”, “knoweth”, “awaketh” and “hath”. This was not going to cutteth it. So I got hold of the Barnes and Noble Classics edition for $6.95: my recommendation.

Aurelius Augustinus was born on November 13, 354. He grew up to become the Bishop of Hippo in Northern Africa and is considered by many to be the most seminal Christian thinker after the Apostle Paul.

Those who have at least a passing awareness of his Confessions, are probably familiar with his prayer, “Lord make me chaste – but not yet” and his spot on assertion, “You have made us for yourself and restless is our heart until it comes to rest in you.”

A book with profound insights, its stability is like that (as I suspect all good autobiographies are) of a three legged stool:

1.       He knows where he is:

“The house of my soul is too narrow for you to come in to me; let it be enlarged by you. It is in ruins; restore it. There is much about it that must offend your eyes; I confess and know it. But who will cleanse it? Or, to whom shall I cry but to you? Cleanse me from my secret faults, lord, and keep back your servant from strange sins. [Psalm 19:12, 13] I believe, and the therefore I speak. But you know, lord. Have I not confessed my transgressions to you, my god; and have you not put away the iniquity in my heart? [Psalm 32:5] I do not contend in judgment with you, who are truth itself; and I would not deceive myself, lest my iniquity lie even to itself. I do not, therefore, contend in judgment with you, for ‘if you, lord, should mark iniquities, lord, who shall stand. [Psalm 130:3]” [Confessions 1.5]

2.      He knows where he’s come from:

“I wish now to review in memory my past wickedness and the carnal corruptions of my soul – not because I still love them, but that I may love you, my god. For love of your love I do this, recalling in the bitterness of self-examination my wicked ways, that you may grow sweet to me, you sweetness without deception! Thus you may gather me up out of those fragments in which I was torn to pieces, while turned away from you who are one, and lost myself among the many. For as I became a youth, I longed to be satisfied with worldly things, and I dared to grow wild in a succession of various and shadowy loves. My form wasted, and I became corrupt in your eyes, yet I was still pleasing to my own eyes – and eager to please the eyes of men. [Confessions 2.1]

“Theft is punished by your law, lord, and by the law written in men’s hearts, which not even engrained wickedness can erase. For what thief will tolerate another thief stealing from him? Even a rich thief will not tolerate a poor thief who is driven my want. Yet I had a desire to commit robbery, and did so, compelled to it by neither hunger nor poverty, but through a contempt for well-doing and a strong impulse to iniquity. For I pilfered something which I had already in sufficient measure, and of much better quality. I did not desire to enjoy what I stole, but only the theft and the sin itself. There was a pear tree close to our own vineyard, heavily laden with fruit, which was not tempting for its color or for its flavor. Late one night – having prolonged our games in the streets until then, as our habit was – a group of young scoundrels, and i among them, went to shake and rob this tree. We carried off a huge load of pears, not to eat ourselves, but to dump out to the hogs, after barely tasting some of them ourselves. Doing this pleased us all the more because it was forbidden. Such was my heart, god, such was my heart – which you pitied even in that bottomless pit. See now, let my heart confess to you what it was seeking there, when I was being gratuitously wicked, having no inducement to evil but the evil itself. It was foul, and I loved it. I loved my own undoing. I loved my error – not that for which I erred, but the error itself. A depraved soul, falling away from security in you to destruction in itself., seeking nothing from the shameful deed but shame itself.” [Confessions 2.4]

3.      He knows where he’s going:

“Lord god, grant us your peace – for you have given us all things. Grant us the peace of quietness, the peace of the sabbath, the peace without an evening. All of this most beautiful array of things, all so very good, will pass away when all their courses are finished – for in them there is both morning and evening. But the seventh day is without an evening, and it has no setting, for you have sanctified it with an everlasting duration. After all your works of creation, which were very good, you rested on the seventh day, although you had created them all in unbroken rest – and this so that the voice of your book might speak to us with the prior assurance that after our works – and they also are very good because you have given them to us – we may find our rest in you in the sabbath of eternal life. [Confessions 13.35]

During the month of June, I’ll be reading  Moby Dick, by Herman Melville. Join me, if you’d like.

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Lincoln’s Private Perseverance

At the beginning of this year I made a list of New Year’s Reading Resolutions (see January 2 blog): “Twelve books, one per month, that I’ve never read, that I really do want to read, expect to enjoy reading and anticipate benefitting from reading.” My intention is that I’ll post a blog at the end of each month (or close to it) with some thoughts and observations about or from the books. (You, of course, are more than welcome to add your own knowledge to what little I have.) During the month of April my reading was from LINCOLN, a biography by Pulitzer Prize winner, late David Herbert Donald.

Abraham Lincoln is one of my heroes and the better I get to know him through what (relative) little I’ve read, the more I appreciate him. He was who not only carried himself heroically, publically, but also privately. We see this in at least three areas (all quotes are from Donald):

1.       His long term struggle with off-and-on bouts of, at times, deep depression.

Always a somewhat melancholy individual, the first time he fell into a profound depression was at the death of his first love, Ann Rutledge, to whom he was engaged. According to Donald, “in August [1835] she fell ill with ‘brain fever’ – probably typhoid, caused when [a ] flood contaminated the Rutledge well – and was put to bed. Though her doctor prescribed absolute quiet, she insisted on seeing Lincoln. A few days afterward she became unconscious, and on August 25 she died.

“Lincoln was devastated. This terrible blow must have brought to mind memories of earlier losses, his brother Thomas, his sister Sarah, and, above all, his mother. His nerves, already frayed by overwork and too much study, began to give way, and he fell into a profound depression. He managed to hold himself together for a time, but after the funeral it began to rain again and his melancholy deepened. He told Mrs. Bennett Abell, with whom he was staying, ‘that he could not bare [sic] the idea of its raining on her Grave.’”

On another occasion, in January of 1841, when he broke off his engagement to Mary Todd, who in fact would become his wife, “instead of being relieved, Lincoln was devastated…. He became deeply depressed… and he took to his bed for about a week.

“During this period some of his friends feared he might commit suicide. Years later [his roommate Joshua] Speed said he felt obliged ‘to remove razors from his room – take any all knives and other dangerous things.’

“’I am now the most miserable man living,’ he informed [his law partner John] Stuart. ‘ If what I feel were equally distributed to the whole human family, there would not be one cheerful face on the earth.’”

Yet Lincoln had a great sense of humor and loved to joke and tell anecdotes. In fact, humor was his first and best weapon at resisting depression.

2.       The death of his (probably) favorite son, Willie, on February 20, 1862, at the age of 11.

Lincoln had begun his first term as President in January of 1851. Just over a year later, “Willie had fallen ill with ‘bilious fever’ – probably typhoid fever, caused by pollution in the White House water system…  During the next two weeks [his younger brother] Tad came down with the same illness while Willie grew worse and worse.” He was sick for three weeks before he succumbed.

“Both parents were devastated by grief. When Lincoln looked on the face of his dead son, he could only say brokenly, ‘He was too good for this earth … but then we loved him so.’

“The president gained some respite from his suffering by caring for Tad, who was still very ill and was heartbroken over the loss of his brother. Often Lincoln lay on his bed beside his sick son to soothe him and give him comfort.

“During this time he increasingly turned to religion for solace. As Mary Lincoln said years later, ‘He first thought … about this subject … when Willie died – never before.’ That statement perhaps told more about the lack of intimacy in the Lincoln marriage than it did about the President’s state of mind. Since his election he had come increasingly to speak and think in religious terms. Before 1960 he rarely invoked the deity in his letters or speeches, but after he began to feel the burden of the presidency, he frequently asked for God’s aid. In his farewell speech in Springfield, for instance, he reminded his fellow townsmen, ‘Without the assistance of [the] Divine Being, … I cannot succeed.’ Again and again on his way to Washington, he praised ‘the providence of God who has never deserted us,’ and voiced confidence ‘that the Almighty, the Maker of the Universe’ would save the nation. In his inaugural address he expressed the hope that impending war could be avoided by ‘intelligence, patriotism, Christianity, and a firm reliance on Him, who has never yet forsaken this favored land.’”

Of course war was not avoided, which leads us to…

3.       His struggle with the role and rule of God in his life and the affairs of the nation.

I’m convinced that if you want to understand Lincoln’s life you must understand this journey he began and continued on during the years of his presidency.

“Often when he could spare the time from his duties, he sought an answer to his questions in the well-thumbed pages of his Bible, reading most often the Old Testament prophets and the Psalms.

“He found comfort and reassurance in the Bible. He was not a member of any Christian church, for he was put off by their forms and dogma, and consequently he remained, as Mary Lincoln later said, ‘not a technical Christian.’ But he drew from the Scriptures such solace that he was prepared to forget his earlier doubts. One evening during [the] dreadful summer of 1864, his old friend Joshua Speed found him intently reading the Bible. ‘I am glad to see you so profitably engaged,’ said Speed.

“’Yes,’ replied the President, ‘I am profitably engaged.’

“’Well,’ commented the visitor, ‘if you have recovered from your skepticism, I am sorry to say that I have not.’

“Looking his old comrade in the face, Lincoln said, ‘You are wrong, Speed, take all of this book upon reason that you can, and the balance on faith, and you will live and die a happier and better man.’ He had come to feel, as he told a delegation of Baltimore African-Americans who presented him a magnificently bound Bible in appreciation of his work for the Negro, that ‘this Great Book… is the best gift God has given to man.’

“Again and again he reverted to the idea that behind all the struggles and losses of the war a Divine purpose was at work. Never did he express this view more eloquently than in a letter he wrote in September to Mrs. Eliza P. Gurney, who extended the sympathy and prayers of the Society of Friends. ‘The purposes of the Almighty are perfect, and must prevail, though we erring mortals may fail to accurately perceive them in advance. We hoped for a happy termination of this terrible war long before this; but God knows best and He has ruled otherwise. … we must work earnestly in the best light He gives us, trusting that so working still conduces to the great ends He ordains. Surely He intends some great good to follow this mighty convulsion, which no mortal could make, and no mortal could stay’”

If you’d like to read the culmination of Lincoln’s thoughts concerning God’s role in those war-torn years, you only need to go to his Second Inaugural Address. More can be learned about his spiritual struggles in Abraham Lincoln: Theologian of American Anguish by Elton Trueblood and about his struggles with depression in Lincoln’s Melancholy: How Depression Challenged a President and Fueled His Greatness by  Joshua Wolf Shenk. 

During the month of May, I’ll be reading Augustine’s Confessions (widely seen as the first Western autobiography ever written). Join me, if you’d like. 

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Reading The Diary of a Country Priest

Pictured: A scene from Robert Bresson’s 1951 film, Diary of a Country Priest.

[At the beginning of this year I made a list of New Year’s Reading Resolutions (see January 2 blog): “Twelve books, one a month, that I’ve never read, that I really do want to read, expect to enjoy reading and anticipate benefitting from reading.” My intention is that I’ll post a blog at the end of each month (or close to it) with some thoughts and observations about the books. You, of course, are more than welcome to add your own knowledge to what little I have.]

Have you ever wondered “Who ministers to the ministers?” Perhaps the loneliest vocation ever is that of the clergy. The expectations placed upon them are extraordinary, often to the point of unrealistic. And by that, I don’t just mean their professional responsibilities (although there is that).

Perhaps the deeper pressure comes from an overall expectation of the congregation, parish and, likely, community-at-large that a minister will have no struggles with temptation, doubts and loneliness, the sense of futility, struggles with a sense of vocation, powerlessness in the face of suffering, depression, clashes with clergy colleagues, and, perhaps, a history of his own family dysfunction– or any of the other spiritual maladies of mere mortals.

When personal shortcomings are revealed, or suggested, often the response of many members of the congregation is critical, judgmental, intolerant. And so the “shepherd” doesn’t know – perhaps, literally, doesn’t have – anyone to whom he or she can turn where they can relax, be open, candid, transparent and vulnerable, seek counsel and receive comfort, acceptance and healing.

This is not a new problem, as is clear demonstrated in The Diary of a Country Priest, by Georges Bernanos, published in 1937 (which means this year marks the 75th anniversary of its publication).

As I was researching a bit on the author, I came across a short, but excellent piece about the novel by Amy Welborn Dubruiel, which begins by explaining where Mr. Bernanos fits into the history of literature.

“In the late 19th and early 20th century a philosophical perspective called positivism ruled the intellectual climate in France. Positivists like Emile Durkheim and Auguste Comte claimed that all one can know about human life is what can be observed and that the laws of behavior and society discerned from these observations should be used to organize human life.

“Into this scientifically-based and utterly materialistic mileu stepped, one by one over the decades before and just after the First World War, a group of writers who formed what we now call the French Catholic Literary Revival. Francois Mauriac, Charles Peguy, Julien Green and Leon Bloy rejected positivism and reclaimed a vision of human beings essentially defined, not by scientific law, but rather by our relation to God and struggle with evil. One of the finest writers of this group was George Bernanos, author of The Diary of a Country Priest.” (emphasis added)

You can find her full article at: http://www.amywelborn.com/catholicwriters/diary.html

The novel is contemporary in many ways, evidenced no later than on page 2, where the priest (whose name we never learn) observes,

Well, as I was saying, the world is eaten up by boredom. To perceive this needs a little preliminary thought :  you can’t see it all at once. It is like dust. You go about and never notice it, you breathe it in, you eat and drink it. It is sifted so fine, it doesn’t even grit on your teeth. But stand still for an instant and there it is, coating your face and hands. To shake off this drizzle of ashes you must be forever on the go. And so people are always ‘on the go.’”

This is the young man’s (age 30) first parish and his parishioners are quick to decide that they don’t like their new priest. In addition to the fact that he’s young, he’s also physically clumsy and socially awkward. Due to chronic pain in his stomach and its inability “keep anything”, his diet consists largely of bread dipped in sugared wine, giving him an emaciated look. So the parishioners gossip about him as a “secret drinker” and a womanizer.

At one point he receives the following note:  “A well wisher advises you to apply for a change of parish. And the sooner the better. When at last you open your eyes to what everyone else can see so plain, you’ll sweat blood! Sorry for you but we say again: ‘Get Out!’”

But the Priest stays, loves and gives of himself to his parish.

The Diary of a Country Priest is not just the story of the conflicts described above. It is also a novel of ideas, as conversations between priest and parishioners, as well as between priest and other priests take place. Two short examples:

A Christian people doesn’t mean a lot of little goody-goodies. The Church has plenty of stamina, and isn’t afraid of sin.”

Truth is meant to save you first, and the comfort comes afterwards. … The Word of God is a red-hot iron.”

And many a Christian believer who has struggled with their faith will feel their heart resonate with:

I no longer believe, because I have no wish to believe. You know longer wish to know yourself. This profound truth, your truth, has ceased to interest you. …

I wrote this in a moment of overwhelming agony of the heart and of all my senses. A mad rush of thoughts, words, images. In my soul nothing. God is silent. Silence.”

However, some of the ideas that are presented ought to be rejected. One, for example, as simply a lack of understanding:

Oh, yes – I’ve worked hard enough! I’ve done my best, and what’s the use? My best is nothing. A leader is not judged by his mere intentions: once he has assumed responsibility, he must answer for his results.”

No. Although other people may, the Lord never asks us for results. He calls us to be faithful to the work he’s given us to do. He takes responsibility for the results.

Other ideas in the book are heretical. For example:

For weeks I had not prayed, had not been able to pray. Unable? Who knows? That supreme grace has got to be earned like any other, and I no doubt had ceased to merit it. And so at last God had withdrawn Himself from me – of this at any rate I am sure. From that instant I was nothing, and yet I kept it to myself!

No grace has to be earned. Grace cannot be earned. Grace is an unmerited gift. That’s the nature of grace, as opposed to a paycheck. And God never withdraws Himself from one of His children. He has promised “I will never leave you nor forsake you.” (Joshua 1:5; Hebrews 13:5)

And then there is the heresy of Mariology:

[To the priest from one of his superiors] “Do you pray to our Lady?”

“Why, naturally!”

“We all say that – but do you pray to her as you should, as befits her? … For she was born without sin – in what amazing isolation!”   

Mary was not born without sin as is clearly indicated in her prayer, recorded in Luke 1, referred to now as The Magnificat: “My soul magnifies the Lord, And my spirit has rejoiced in God my Savior(emphasis added).

Nor is Mary to be prayed to. In Acts 1:14 we find Mary, some other women, and the disciples in an upper room praying together. Mary was praying with them; they were not praying to Mary.

Still, The Diary of a Country Priest is a book I recommend. It has some good meat to chew on. One reviewer suggested, “Every person in ministry ought to read this book, but perhaps not until you turn fifty or so.”

For the month of April I intend to read Lincoln, by the late Pulitzer Prize winner David Herbert Donald. Join me if you’d like.

 

 

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The Treasure of Charles Dickens Found in “David Copperfield”

At the beginning of this year I made a list of New Year Reading Resolutions (see January 2 blog): “Twelve books, one a month, that I’ve never read, that I really do want to read, expect to enjoy reading and anticipate benefitting from reading.” My intention is that I’ll post a blog at the end of each month (or close to it) with some thoughts and observations about the books. You, of course, are more than welcome to add your own knowledge to what little I have.

In February I read David Copperfield  (in honor of Charles Dickens’ 200th birthday, February 7),  which was published as a novel in 1850. Like most of his works, it originally appeared in serial form a year earlier. At that time the full title was The Personal History, Adventures, Experience and Observation of David Copperfield the Younger of Blunderstone Rookery (Which He Never Meant to Publish on Any Account).

It was Dickens’ eighth and is considered by many (from what I’ve come to understand) as probably the most autobiographical of all of his novels. In the preface to the 1867 edition, Dickens wrote, “… like many fond parents, I have in my heart of hearts a favourite child. And his name is David Copperfield.”

This was the first work by Dickens I’d ever read. I’ve never even read A Christmas Carol (who has to?). But I was by no means unfamiliar with Dickens. Somehow his work – its feel, its themes, its overall tone, the memorable characters people recognize as coming from his novels even if they’ve never read one – has so worked its way into the fabric of our consciousness, that when someone uses the word “Dickensian” practically everyone is very likely to get a particular picture in their mind.

It has been said regarding Dickens’ nearly twenty novels that “for all their strong plots and distinct moods, the books coalesce in memory into one huge Dickens Novel or Dickens Universe.”

Dickens is comical, because many of his characters are. Dickens is serious because the societal concerns he addresses are serious. He is insightful when it comes to human nature, knowing that both the good and evil in a person may often be confused as being one rather than the other. He is sensitive to the weaknesses which cause people to make poor decisions, yet brutal toward the wickedness of others who derive pleasure by inflicting suffering or taking advantage of the misfortunes of others. And Dickens is inspiring as he presents characters with heroic natures who will, for the sake of others, sacrifice what they must of themselves.

Take all of this and add superb character portrayal, ingenious plot structure where multiple threads converge at the end of the story – and more – and you end up with a masterpiece, a classic.

All this you’ll find in David Copperfield as you travel with him though much of his life and meet some of the most memorable of characters (although you may not want to invite them all to dinner), including:

  • Clara Peggotty – The faithful servant of the Copperfield family and a lifelong companion to David.
  • Betsy Trotwood – David’s eccentric and temperamental great-aunt. Looks can be deceiving.
  • Edward Murdstone – Young David’s cruel stepfather.
  • Jane Murdstone – Mr. Murdstone’s equally cruel spinster sister, who moves into the Copperfield house.
  • Daniel Peggotty – Clara Peggotty’s brother who, for reasons I’ll not reveal, is among the most heroic in all of literature.
  • James Steerforth – A close friend of David. Looks can be deceiving.
  • Tommy Traddles – Another close friend of David. Looks can be deceiving.
  • And finally, there’s the incomparable Uriah Heep. He always talks of being “‘umble” and nurtures a deep hatred of David Copperfield and many others.

Let me encourage you to enter the world of David Copperfield, and thus the world of Charles Dickens. Take your time (this isn’t James Patterson) and live there for a while.

By the way, this month I’m reading George Bernanos’ The Diary of a Country Priest. You’re welcome to join me.

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