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.