Wednesday, July 30, 2014

A Pickwick Kind of Summer: Guest Post by Melissa of Dear Mr. Dickens

Please welcome Melissa of Dear Mr. Dickens  to the blog!  Melissa is (obviously) a big fan of Dickens. Today she successfully explains why you should give The Pickwick Papers a chance.  No, really! Check it out:

When you think of summer reads, Charles Dickens doesn't instantly spring to mind. Titles like “Bleak House” and “Hard Times” don’t conjure up beach towels, water parks and picnics by the lake. Their average length, too, would make taking most of his works on a summer outing more akin to weight training than than a leisurely stroll to the beach with a paperback.

So why am I recommending Dickens’ The Pickwick Papers as your next summer read?

Because it’s awesome.

Yes, the title might remind you of legal proceedings or something equally dry, and I’ll be the first to admit that the first chapter isn't exactly riveting. Heck, it even took Dickens’ contemporary readers a while to warm up to the work. But I can think of several great TV shows whose early episodes weren't stellar either. Stick with it and I guarantee it’ll be worth it.

And while we’re on the subject of TV shows, this book is less like a TV drama, and more like a 19th century sitcom. Think Charles Dickens meets Three’s Company. The ever-cheerful Mr. Pickwick and his friends find themselves in a series of situations that start out innocently enough but which have a tendency to become hilarious misadventures in the blink of an eye. One evening at an inn, for example, Mr. Pickwick loses his way trying to find his room after some serious carousing. He finds it eventually and falls asleep, only to be awoken by the arrival of a very proper lady who begins preparing for bed. He realizes he’s accidentally gone to sleep in the wrong room and spends the next several pages trying to sneak out in his nightgown without alerting her to his presence.

Heavy drama this ain’t. 

I will also admit that the book’s length (almost 1,000 pages) is intimidating as hell. The fact is, however, most of Dickens’ works were published in monthly installments of a few chapters each – they were meant to be read in short, entertaining interludes. The Pickwick Papers was Dickens’ first full novel, written when he was in his mid-twenties, and it was published from April 1836 to November 1837. It probably won’t take you 18 months to finish, but the point is that you can pick it up whenever the mood strikes without worrying about forgetting what was happening or who said what to whom, because the characters are memorable and there isn't much of a plot. You can even go off and read another book or two in the meantime – Mr. Pickwick will be happy to see you when you return, and he’ll cheerfully take you along on his next adventure.

Before I embarked on my self-inflicted Dickens project, my reading was about quantity more than anything. Not only did I want to finish whatever book I was reading quickly so I could get on to the next one, but I was often impatient when a story didn't immediately get my attention and hold it. But Dickens isn't like that. He forces you to slow down and breathe, to enjoy the play of language and the subtle social satire, to appreciate the humor in the smallest of everyday activities, and to glimpse the day-to-day world of early 19th century England.

This is definitely one of those books where the journey is more important than the destination. Here, characters can sit around a crackling fire and tell each other stories, and as one of Pickwick’s guests, you get to listen in. Does the short story move the plot forward? Not at all! But have I enjoyed spending time in the Pickwick Club’s company? Absolutely.

Many of Dickens’ books serve up full, five-course dinners of drama, tragedy and masterful plotting, and I love them for it. The Pickwick Papers, though, is more like an all-you-can-eat breakfast buffet of comedic episodes. Eat as much as you want, go back whenever you’re hungry, and appreciate that, although bacon isn't filet mignon, bacon is also excellent in its own right.

And yes, I will wrap up this recommendation by equating a work of Charles Dickens with bacon.

Mmmm, bacon.

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