I had a terrible moment while reading Charles Dickens recently. I was just beginning the second paragraph of the second chapter of “Oliver Twist,” where the narrator describes Oliver’s first months of life as a ward of the state:
The hungry and destitute situation of the infant orphan was duly reported by the workhouse authorities to the parish authorities. The parish authorities inquired with dignity of the workhouse authorities, whether there was no female them domiciled in “the house” who was in a situation to impart to Oliver Twist, the consolation and nourishment of which he stood in need. The workhouse authorities replied with humility, that there was not. Upon this, the parish authorities magnanimously and humanely resolved, that Oliver should be “farmed,” or, in other words, that he should be dispatched to a branch-workhouse some three miles off, where twenty or thirty other juvenile offenders against the poor-laws, rolled about the floor all day, without the inconvenience of too much food or too much clothing, under the parental superintendence of an elderly female, who received the culprits at and for the consideration of sevenpence-halfpenny per small head per week. Sevenpence-halfpenny’s worth per week is a good round diet for a child; a great deal may be got for sevenpence-halfpenny, quite enough to overload its stomach, and make it uncomfortable. The elderly female was woman of wisdom and experience; she knew what was good for children; and she had a very accurate perception of what was good for herself. So, she appropriated the greater part of the weekly stipend to her own use, and consigned the rising parochial generation to even a shorter allowance than was originally provided for them. Thereby finding in the lowest depth a deeper still, and proving herself a very great experimental philosopher.
I read this paragraph once. Then I read it again. And then again. I could not stop myself rereading it a fourth time, at which point I despaired of ever getting through the second chapter, let alone the entire novel. (Spoiler alert: I did, eventually, get through both.)
I could not stop rereading it because I could not stop finding new bits to marvel at. For example, the first sentence here (the third of the chapter) is in the passive voice, which places the workhouse authorities in a chain of prepositional phrases alongside the parish authorities, which echoes at the syntax level the meaning of the story: the chain of institutions trying to pass Oliver’s care onto the other. I stopped to chew on that for a while. Then I spent some time contemplating the direct objects “with dignity” and “with humility” and how we know they’re meant ironically because of what we already know about the authorities. Then there are “the juvenile offenders against the poor laws” and the repetition of sevenpence-halfpenny and the elderly woman’s faux concern for the children. Which we know is faux because she “knew what was good for children,” but she possessed “a very accurate perception of what was good for herself.” The emphasis is subtle, but it does the job.
Beginning the second paragraph and realizing I was in for the same slow going, I put the book down and raised my eyes level, my gaze falling on my towering bookshelf, the piles of books stacked two deep.
This was when the terrible thought assaulted me: Why does anyone else bother? Here, I refer not to why does anyone else bother writing, but why does anyone else bother using the English language? Perhaps we should just hand each other Charles Dickens novels with the relevant passages marked.
Aaaand that silly hyperbole is what brought me back down to earth.
For one obvious thing, while I wring my hands and swoon reading Dickens, others read the same and think, Ugh. He’s so mawkish and so wordy and just so so. His sentences are too long. His books are too long. Ugh, Dickens.
We don’t, actually, all have to like the same things. Including the same books.
Yes, yes, but more importantly, this: “There is no subject so old that something new cannot be said about it” (Dostoyevsky).
And also: When I was pregnant with my son, my dear friend would become apoplectic when able-bodied, not-eight-months-pregnant people declined to give me their seats on the subway. She was bursting at the seams to scold them, to demand a seat on my behalf, to “say something!” Much fuming and shooting of snake eyes at the seated business types hiding behind their newspapers ensued. Of course, the snake eyes were lost on them, what with the newspapers providing a protective shield.
“It’s okay,” I’d say to her. “This is New York. Everyone has a story.” I meant “a story about why they need their seats.” But I meant it, and it applies beyond New York, beyond crowded subways, beyond niceties.
Even if Charles Dickens were the greatest English language novelist (which I’m inclined to think, at the moment), so many stories that were not written by Charles Dickens have enriched my life. Where would I be without Haruki Murakami (in translation, but still) and Nick Hornby and Kate Atkinson and Toni Morrison – all authors whose books have influenced how I look at the world and/or have brought me comfort and/or have inspired me to feel hopeful about human experience? And what about Jill Mansell’s charming romances and M.C. Beaton’s delightful Hamish Macbeth murder mysteries* that have cheered me up, and on more than one occasion been the reason long, potentially tedious transatlantic plane journeys passed in a beat?
Each time, with each of these books, I didn’t want the story to end because something magical was happening for me.
So, self, that is why we bother.
*Subtract the murder, and I’d gladly jump into any one of those novels and live there. Hamish!