Tuesday, February 7, 2012


Today is Charles Dickens' 200th Birthday, as anyone who pays close attention to Google's homepage doodles will have realized by now.

I mentioned this to a friend of mine, including the important detail that the man is my favorite author. She's a novelist, and she said, "It's funny, everybody respects him, but not very many people say he's their favorite author." I said I guess that's true. It's because people don't read him.

"Yeah, what what is Mark Twain said about classics...that they're books 'that people praise but don't read.'" That about sums it up. I contended that if more people read Dickens, he'd find his way into more Favorite Author slots.

An aside: I know there are people who legitimately don't like the man's style. To them, I extend my pity, and a pass. If you've read him (and I mean more than one book in high school), I suppose you're allowed to dislike his writing. The sentiment baffles me, and always will, but it's allowed. Just like all bad opinions.

Last semester, one of my professors distributed a collection of basic screenwriting "rules" by James Dalessandro. There were ten of them. Here is number 10:
I saved the best for last. I know a screenwriter in Los Angeles who has written one successful movie and has yet to find a second commercial idea. He confided in me once that he has not read a book in fifteen years, since he graduated from college. I was speechless. Listen, and listen well. The keys to knowledge are called "books." The province of dreams, the wellspring of wisdom, the storehouse of human drama is books. All things marvelous and terrifying are in black and white on bound pages. From "Les Miserable" to "To Kill A Mockingbird" to "Forrest Gump," the great characters began on the printed page, not the silver screen. To write films, you must love films and read screenplays. But if you do not read books, if you missed Dante and Satre, Chekhov and Faulkner, Steinbeck and Kesey, you are missing cards from your deck. You can not play poker with a short hand.
Why don't people read? Have you asked them? I have. The answer is always the same: "I want to read, but I can never find the time."

OK. Do you eat? How do you find the time, I wonder? Well, you find it because you need to eat. If it wasn't essential, plenty of us wouldn't do it nearly as often as we do.

You won't read until you need to read. The sad truth is that few people are convinced it is actually a need. To the vast majority, reading is a luxury. It is one of the first things to get nixed from the list of to-do's when time gets short, and life gets crunched. If we don't make time to read, then deep down we don't think it's essential, and we are wrong.

It's a spiritual thing. You don't notice what you're missing when you fail to read great literature. But when you really start to dig in, you wonder how you ever survived without it. The fact is, we don't. There is, everywhere, evidence that our culture is perishing in what Mother Teresa called "a famine of the spirit."

It is an inadvertently self-imposed famine, though, for we are surrounded by that which could so easily satisfy, and deeply.

For instance, I have the complete works of Charles Dickens on my iPhone. It was $2.99.

Happy Birthday, Mr. Dickens.

1 comment:

  1. You know how I feel about this. Being raised in the illiterate haze of the 1970's, I discovered classic literature pretty much on my own and then decided it was worth it to major in English Literature in college. I wanted to make sure I never want for good writing to feast upon. Quite often, when I finished a book in the past and eagerly wanted to dive into another, everyone I asked was in a quandary about what to recommend.

    Good reading IS a bit of an acquired taste, but, as you say, it's as essential as nutritious food, which is also, frequently, unappetizing if you've accustomed yourself to junk food.


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