"Angels can fly because they take themselves lightly." – G. K. Chesterton

Day 10: Favorite Classic Book

It was difficult for me to make a choice in this category.  There are a lot of classics that I like, but few that I truly love.  The Pickwick Papers wins out simply because of the time in my life when I read it.  I was twenty-two years old, just starting to leave behind the cynicism and despair of the college years for a proper enjoyment of life more appropriate to adulthood.  The Pickwick Papers explodes with joy and life, more so than any other book I can name.  Here’s the opening paragraph:

That punctual servant of all work, the sun, had just risen, and begun to strike a light on the morning of the thirteenth of May, one thousand eight hundred and twenty-seven, when Mr. Samuel Pickwick burst like another sun from his slumbers, threw open his chamber window, and looked out upon the world beneath. Goswell Street was at his feet, Goswell Street was on his right hand—as far as the eye could reach, Goswell Street extended on his left; and the opposite side of Goswell Street was over the way. ‘Such,’ thought Mr. Pickwick, ‘are the narrow views of those philosophers who, content with examining the things that lie before them, look not to the truths which are hidden beyond. As well might I be content to gaze on Goswell Street for ever, without one effort to penetrate to the hidden countries which on every side surround it.’ And having given vent to this beautiful reflection, Mr. Pickwick proceeded to put himself into his clothes, and his clothes into his portmanteau. Great men are seldom over scrupulous in the arrangement of their attire; the operation of shaving, dressing, and coffee-imbibing was soon performed; and, in another hour, Mr. Pickwick, with his portmanteau in his hand, his telescope in his greatcoat pocket, and his note-book in his waistcoat, ready for the reception of any discoveries worthy of being noted down, had arrived at the coach-stand in St. Martin’s-le-Grand. ‘Cab!’ said Mr. Pickwick.

Some accuse Dickens are wordiness.  I think he has the good kind of wordiness, the one that fleshes out scenes and fills up chapters with enough detail to make everything come alive.  The Pickwick Papers has the simplest kind of plot, which is to say it has almost none.  It simply follows Mr. Pickwick and three of his friends as they live their lives, travel around England, and deal with the events, misunderstandings, and minor disasters that ensue.  This may sound like a thin premise on which to hang a novel, much less an 800-page novel, and it probably would be … for anyone other than Charles Dickens.  In his hands, it becomes a glorious celebration of many things: the English characters, friendship, eccentricity, and the joy of being alive.

Comments on: "Day 10: Favorite Classic Book" (1)

  1. Dear Alex (if I may)

    I came to your blog because I was searching for Pickwick Papers enthusiasts online, to tell them a piece a news, and your statement about Pickwick really struck a chord with me. To begin with, you talk about how Pickwick explodes with life – and this is how my own fascination with The Pickwick Papers began. I was listening to the BBC radio show Desert Island Discs, and the guest chose The Pickwick Papers as a book to take to a desert island because “it is so full of life”. That led me to get Pickwick out of the library, as I had never read it before….and that started a quest to investigate the backstory of this extraordinary novel. The result of the quest is that I have written a novel about the origins and afterlife of Pickwick. It’s called Death and Mr Pickwick and it will be published in May by the Random House Group (in the UK) and in June by Farrar, Straus & Giroux (in the USA). Further information can be found at:
    By the way, as you are a Chesterton fan, I presume you know that he too chose The Pickwick Papers as the book that he would take to a desert island? (Well, he first of all joked that he would take a book on shipbuilding , but afterwards said that he would take Pickwick.)
    Best wishes
    Stephen Jarvis

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