All Good Books Are Alike

May 2, 2012 at 8:11 pm | Posted in Writing, Reading | Leave a comment

All good books are alike in that they are truer than if they had really happened and after you are finished reading one you will feel that . . . it all belongs to you: the good and the bad, the ecstasy, the remorse and sorrow, the people and the places and how the weather was. . .

Ernest Hemingway

     When the cold, crotchety Ebenezer Scrooge is given a look at his boyhood self in Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, he melts. Suddenly, decades of calluses drop from his soul like barnacles magically falling off the bottom of a ship. For a glistening moment, the business matters that normally dominate every corridor of his mind are gone. The only money he thinks of is in the form of a wistful contemplation of the coins he might have given to the boy who sang carols in front of his door the previous night.

The most remarkable thing about this passage though, isn’t what Scrooge isn’t thinking about; it’s what completely absorbs him, what he gets lost in. When he notices that his younger self is reading, he becomes excited, and it’s a cleansing, joyous excitement. “Why it’s Ali Baba!” he exclaims in what Dickens calls “ecstasy.” It’s hard to get higher than ecstasy.

The reason for this elevated state is the fact that Scrooge is seeing more than himself reading; he is once more beholding the characters he loved. Scrooge thrills to them as though they are parading past him.  Dickens makes you hear him pointing them out. There is a Sultan’s groom turned upside down by a genii for having married, Scrooge thinks, too far above his class. “What business had he to be married to the princess?” Scrooge disapprovingly intones. He identifies Robinson Crusoe (“Robin” to him), and describes Crusoe’s parrot in lively detail. He sees Friday running, and calls out to him. Scrooge is lost in words that have become so much more than words.

Midway through this reunion, Scrooge asks his ghostly escort, “Don’t you see him?” Scrooge isn’t just remembering; he is witnessing. These aren’t characters to him. These are people he knew, people who once gave color to his gray life, and have magically come back to him. The George C. Scott-led movie version of the story takes the idea further. When the ghost expresses sympathy for the way Scrooge once clung to such fictional characters as friends, he turns with a look of astonishment. “Ali Baba not real?” he asks incredulously, as if the ghost has just labeled England a mythical kingdom.

Isn’t that the way we feel about the stories and the characters we have loved? We might be afraid to admit our secret knowledge openly: These aren’t characters; these are people. We have known them.  They have kept us company in lonely times. They have taught us things about life that we would otherwise never have known. They have been our friends.

Scout and Jem in To Kill a Mockingbird not real? Such a contention would be as absurd as contending that there was no actual Secret Garden!  Remember our friend Tom Sawyer? He was a little manipulative, but he had compensating qualities. And what about Jay Gatsby? Didn’t it hurt to see him live and die for what turned out to be an illusion? He reached out, and there was nothing to take hold of. Only air. As for Philip “Pip” Pirrip, the little orphan of Great Expectations, how could we not be moved by his sense of wonder and by the kindness and understanding to which it ultimately brought him? Didn’t we experience the entire journey right by his side? Gandalf and Sherlock Holmes and Jane Eyre not real? One might as well contend that Jean Valjean and Anne of Green Gables were only the products of an author’s imagination. We know better, don’t we?

But that part about the author’s imagination may give us something to consider. Good authors don’t imagine; they give birth. Their offspring are not ordinary progeny; they live forever. The Dracula who chilled my grandparents was still around, unaltered by time, to chill me.  And he’ll continue to chill long after I’m gone. The same unending longevity is shared by John Steinbeck’s Billy Buck, Raymond Chandler’s Phillip Marlowe, and Jane Austen’s Emma. This is one of the most beautiful traits of good storytelling. The best authors don’t merely populate the tales they tell; they populate our lives – and our hearts – as well.


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