Big Old Books, and Why One Should Read Them



Upon a recent completion of the fine work that is The Life and Adventures of Martin Chuzzlewit (1844), I reflected a mite and thought I might as well share some of the said reflections for the benefit of either a many or a few.

The following list is compiled having completed reading yet another of the monumental works of Mr. Charles Dickens.  Suggestions may be applicable to any number of books but might only be so for this one in particular, or moreso for books penned by Mr. Dickens himself. 

1. Sense of Accomplishment. Regardless of how long it might take an individual to read a book of length, he or she will indubitably have a moment when the final cover closing transpires to collect dust for a final time in which the thought is, “I read that!”  Furthermore, this, like any other exercise will increase the ability to read more and with greater attentiveness.

2. Increase of skills in Grammar, Vocabulary, Syntax, and Etymology.  Especially when reading a book of this age (1844), in addition to its length, one will absorb much in the way of stretching the expectancy of what one finds in writing. Though some discoveries may not translate well into the modern tongue, the stretch itself will be beneficial, or one might enjoy glassy eyed looks over tea or coffee from one’s conversation partner.

3. Archetypal Characters.  One will grow to love or abhor the thought of Pecksniffian pride, Tapely jolliness, or the innocence of Thomas Pinch. In encountering the larger than life characters of Mr. Dickens’s imagination, one will find much about himself or others upon which to reflect or repent.  A great deal about the human experience is to be found within the pages of such a volume.

4. The School of Allusions.  One may find within any Dickens’ novel or classic British literature for one, many of the modern day allusions that have trickled into our thoughts or conversations.  Upon such discoveries one may rejoice (as the woman with her silver coins) as if having found that one item he did not even know was lost.  The further challenge for those who read more widely and deeply (The Bible certainly included) will find Mr. Dickens’ use of the same methods to be impeccable and quite clever.

5. Time Travel. Reading a book such as this one will certainly allow one to be transported to any number of times.  The first time is the time in which the book was read, as one joins the throngs who first read the book.  The second is the time period in which the book is actually set (generally these times being contemporary for Mr. Dickens), in which this world will unfold one page at a time.

6. Avoidance of Chronological Snobbery.  “It is a good rule, after reading a new book, never to allow yourself another new one till you have read an old one in between. If that is too much for you, you should at least read one old one to every three new ones.” – C.S. Lewis.   One may get too carried away with trying to read everything that is “hot off the press” in order to stay current.  However, reading older books will certainly make for a much more steady oar in the stream of society today. Take Mr. Lewis’s advice (though he might have considered Dickens also a bit modern compared to a great deal of his reading.)

7. The Necessity of Fiction.  Something about fiction might indeed “baptize the imagination” as it were in such away for reality to become even more real (bordering on Platonic idealism with Lewis in my head). Still, storytelling is at least as old as the invention of fire, if not older, and should be a maintained art, though it be dying, in our experience if we indeed wish to have the richest of experiences.

 8.  Paragraphs like these:

“Like a sudden flash of memory or spirit kindling up the mind of an old man, it shed a glory upon the scene, in which its departed youth and freshness seemed to live again. The wet grass sparkled in the light; the scanty patches of verdure in the hedges–where a few green twigs yet stood together bravely, resisting to the last the tyranny of nipping winds and early frosts–took heart and brightened up; the stream which had been dull and sullen all day long, broke out into a cheerful smile; the birds began to chirp and twitter on the naked boughs, as though the hopeful creatures half believed that winter had gone by, and spring had come already. The vane upon the tapering spire of the old church glistened from its lofty station in sympathy with the general gladness; and from the ivy-shaded windows such gleams of light shone back upon the glowing sky, that it seemed as if the quiet buildings were the hoarding-place of twenty summers, and all their ruddiness and warmth were stored within.” ( TLaAoMC, Dickens, Chapter 2)


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