If you are a Facebook member, you may have seen this challenge going around on people’s Timelines: a friend nominates you to post the cover of a book that is significant for you, one book cover for each of seven days—just the cover, with (I quote) “No Explanation.” With my reputation for loving books, it’s not surprising that this challenge came around to me. With my penchant for talking about books, it’s also not surprising that I couldn’t keep my mouth shut (or my keyboard silent) to follow the “No Explanation” rule.
In short, I explained.
I commented briefly on why I chose David Copperfield as one of my “significant to me” book selections. I’m glad I did, because the comment gave rise to a fun and interesting conversation about Dickens with several of my friends.
This was so much fun, I wanted to share it with my blog readers as well. My friends kindly gave me permission to post our Dickens chat here, just to show how much fun it can be to have shared experience and love of a classic author. Several different topics come up, as you can see, the usual case when readers discuss an author of sufficient depth and accomplishment to be valued as classic.
Since these are social media posts, edited just slightly to make them understandable, the conversation is a little disjointed, but I think you will be able to follow along. I hope you enjoy reading our spontaneous Dickens chat! If you want to join in, please do—leave a reply at the end of the post and I will write back.
(Note: Comments are held for moderation, so there will be a delay in posting. No emails are published.)
MJ’s First Remark
MJ Booklover: This “no comment” thing is unbearable–I think I might have to comment. (LOL): David Copperfield was the first Dickens book I read, way back in junior high school. Loved Dickens ever since and have read most all of his works multiple times, but just as this one was his “favorite child,” it is my favorite as well. Got to teach it once, and several of my students thanked me for “making them read it.”
If you’re interested in Dickens, I did a post on my blog on Bleak House, another great one.
David: I strongly hate challenges that say, “no comment”! I really want to know why a person picks the books (song, movie, etc). Not only does it help me decide if I also might like it, but it helps me get to better understand the person sharing it!
Thanks so much for adding your comments!!!!!!!!!!!
MJ Booklover: Thanks, David! I feel the same! You should do this book challenge too! I bet your list would be full of great Sy Fi, which I also love, BTW.
Elizabeth: MJ Booklover, I was thinking of throwing it out there as you did, for David, and I hadn’t yet thought who else.
David: I will ponder this. Perhaps after I see what books Elizabeth posts, I will be more motivated. 🙂
Remembering the Dickens Experience
MJ Booklover: Dickens is an interesting writer, because when people first read it, they remember mostly the lurid or outsize stuff like Miss Havisham’s rotted wedding cake, but on second or third readings, one begins to perceive his intense sensitivity to the wounds people acquire just growing up human, and the subtlety with which he portrays them.
Wendy: That wedding cake always bothered me until I realized an English wedding cake is what we call a fruitcake, so it would have mummified well.
Elizabeth: I loved Dickens in HS too. May have to do a re-read.
Elizabeth: There was something of my mother in Miss Havisham.
MJ Booklover: Ah yes–people think Dickens characters are caricatures, but over and over again I have met them on the street. LOL.
Naming Our Favorites
MJ Booklover: Copperfield and Bleak House are my favorites, followed closely by Great Expectations.
Arthur: I love that you broke the rules! [Note: I should have asked Arthur what rules I broke! I assume my choosing David Copperfield as the favorite is unusual.]
Elizabeth: I remember really liking A Tale of Two Cities too.
Wendy: That’s my go-to Dickens novel. People complain about it, but I find it deeply satisfying.
MJ Booklover: Wendy, we are sisters in Dickens!
Wendy: Dombey and Son–had me from the first page. And the fact that Dombey and son ended up being Dombey and Daughter!!!
Qualities We Admire in Dickens’s Work
Arthur: My first Dickens novel was A Tale of Two Cities. I still enjoy reading it. David Copperfield was the second Dickens novel that I read. I have read all the novels now, and I still love David Copperfield, Bleak House, Great Expectations, Pickwick Papers, Dombey and Son, The Old Curiosity Shop, Little Dorrit, and Oliver Twist.
MJ Booklover: Me too! Little Dorrit is unbearably poignant in places. Also love love Pickwick and Sam.
Arthur: Yes, Little Dorrit has a powerful pathos in places. One thing I do like about Dickens is his ability to meld tragedy and comedy with a goodly dash of sentiment. There’re multi-levels in his narrative to appeal to a variety of readers and reading ability. People would combine their money to buy a copy of the serialized novels so that they could read them together. What a great way to spend money.
MJ Booklover: Yes yes yes! Dickens understood what moves people.
Arthur: Yes, he did. I also enjoy the theatricality of the novels and how his narrative creates strong visuals in the reader’s mind.
MJ Booklover: Yes, and that’s why I always wanted to bring him to present day as a movie director! He had a freakishly perfect visual memory–unusual.
Style and Sentiment
MJ Booklover: Why is sentiment out of style? We need it now.
Arthur: Good question. I think for sentiment to work there has to be some shared sense of what it means to be human.
MJ Booklover: Good point. We are losing our shared roots as a Christian culture. Not that everyone must believe, but maybe everyone needs to know and understand the world view for Victorian-style sentiment to be shared.
Arthur: That’s a good point. I think Christianity had a strong influence during Dickens’ time although many only paid lip service to the rules in public. It was still a shared experience. Could the sentiment so common in Victorian times also be an indication of that shared experience starting to slip away?
MJ Booklover: Could be! That has been observed about the sentimentalism in American Regionalism after Civil War. Small cultures were disappearing because of the industrial revolution; hence people wrote sentimental stories depicting the cultures of little niches and byways before they disappeared. For those interested in Regionalism, I cover that in this blog post on Gilded Age literature.
Conversation Finished, but Thinking Goes On
Our conversation broke off here as life called us away from our screens, but I kept on thinking about many of the things my friends had remarked.
For instance, I wondered more about whether Sentiment in fiction really does require that readers share a common culture for them to be moved by it or to enjoy and appreciate it. Pausing for a definition: “Sentimental” literature is writing that focuses on producing strong emotion in readers, as Dickens did in his description of the death of Little Nell in The Old Curiosity Shop. Even famous intellectuals of that day wrote letters and diary accounts describing how much they wept when reading those scenes.
In our time, Sentimentality has been much criticized or dismissed as thoughtless, second-rate, or clichéd, though some scholars are taking a second look at sentiment as a serious form of art and communication. So now, back to our conversation: must readers share the same ideas of what it means to be human for literary sentiment be effective, appreciated, and enjoyed by readers?
Could it be that we already share enough experience just being human for fictional sentimentality to move us, to sigh and shed tears over the trials, vicissitudes, and demonstrated virtues of sympathetic fictional characters? If so, what explains the anti-sentiment trend in fiction and film right now, with the current preference for cynicism, sarcasm, and focus on the darker side of human character?
As this report on a rambling social media interaction suggests, true classics can inspire thoughts, ideas, and conversations without end. If you have thoughts about this, or any aspect of your experience reading Dickens, please leave a reply and keep the conversation going! Maybe even share it on social media!
[Replies are held for moderation before posting to make sure they don’t have irrelevant links or comments. Nothing irrelevant to topics in this post will be published. No emails will be published.]
Florence and Paul Dombey. By Internet Archive Book Images [No restrictions], via Wikimedia Commons.
Social Media Users. Photo by rawpixel.com from Pexels.
Mary Jane is a longtime literature lover who lived in the Cincinnati area for many years, then in central Louisiana for three years (what a treat!), teaching literature classes at universities in both locations. Now back in the Cincinnati area, she pampers her grandchildren, experiments with cooking, and visits art museums as often as possible.