Today marks the 200th birthday of Charles Dickens. He’s been all over the internet for weeks, but I didn’t think much about the occasion until this morning when I saw a video in The Guardian of Simon Callow touring Dickens sites in London. Just that brief autobiographical sketch made me remember how interesting the man was, and how much his books affected me.
Unlike most book lovers I know, I wasn’t a kid who read obsessively. My first favorites were books with animals in them–all of the E.B. White books, The Mouse and the Motorcycle, The Velveteen Rabbit, just to name a few. My tiny school’s library back then was also the last repository for musty fifties gems by Rosamond du Jardin and authors like her, so occasionally I would inhale a book about an earnest teen named Midge or Penny in the throes of a dating crisis.
(I still crave Rosamond du Jardin books sometimes.)
But one rainy winter weekend when I was twelve and stuck with nothing to read, I pulled a copy of David Copperfield off my parents’ bookshelves. I’d watched a show about Dickens on Masterpiece Theater, so I knew a little about him. As I sat down with the book, its tiny typeface, few illustrations by Phiz and doorstop size made me wonder if I would finish by the time I finished high school. But I don’t think it lasted the weekend. From the moment I read the words “I am born,” I don’t remember moving off my twin bed. Up to that time I’d never
understood how my sister Julia could get so involved in a book she’d have to be pried out of her room. I’m sure an awful lot of what was going on in the story passed completely over my head, but I remember being so completely involved that by the end I was emotionally wrung out. And more than that, I was already looking forward to another book fix–that incredible state where your mind is so transported to another time and place that you actually forget who you are and that you really should be doing your math homework. I know some people first felt that reading trance while reading Nancy Drew, or Agatha Christie books, or Gone with the Wind. For me, it was Charles Dickens. After David Copperfield, I quickly raced through Oliver Twist, Great Expectations and Nicholas Nickleby before fizzling out in the middle of Martin Chuzzlewit.
I’ve still only read a handful of Dickens books. Lately, my literary affections have wandered to some of his contemporaries. But there’s usually a book of his lurking in my TBR pile somewhere. Next up, Our Mutual Friend.