Let me make it clear, therefore, that I like these storytellers for the same
reasons that children do; that is, because they tell wonderful yarns and tell
them well, that I know no loftier reason than this to read a book, and that in
literature I avoid sociologies and psychoanalysis as much as possible, so that
my liver will not take umbrage.
A friend recently asked me an interesting two-part question that had never occurred to me. It really got me thinking and I had a lot of fun wrestling with it for a while. But at a certain point the fun ended and it wound up being one of the most infuriatingly frustrating experiences of my life.
So here’s that two-part question: If you were going to be stranded on one of those proverbial desert islands for the next ten years, and you could have a big bunch of books with you by any author or authors other than Charles Dickens, whose words would you want to spend a decade with?
And similarly, if you could also have a bunch of non-Dickensian films on hand, which ones would you choose? (And let us assume that you also have a solar powered TV with a built-in DVD player…)
From the for what it’s worth department, here’s what I came up with:
As for the films, there are just too many to choose from. This is really hard. But my top ten, in no particular order, might look something like this: The Magnificent Ambersons, The Third Man, The Ballad of Cable Hogue, Harold and Maude, Holiday (1938 version), Casablanca, Sullivan’s Travels, My Darling Clementine, The Crowd, The Adventures of Robin Hood, A Day in the Country and Children of Paradise. (I cheated; that’s twelve.)
And as for my favorite authors whose names are not Charles Dickens, again in no particular order, my top ten would probably be: George Orwell, Michael Moorcock, C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien, Anthony Trollope, Mark Twain, Madeleine L’Engle, Ray Bradbury, L. Frank Baum, Edgar Rice Burroughs and Booth Tarkington. (Cheated again; eleven.)
Actually, those last five are in a kind of order or group since they are, in my opinion, American authors who simply don’t get the kind of mainstream credit and respect that they deserve. The first four, it would appear, because they work largely in an area that an awful lot of people just don’t seem to approve of and certainly don’t take too seriously. And, of course, writing for children doesn’t really count because writing for children is easy. (There are three British authors on my list who often find themselves in this same disreputable boat. However, for present purposes, these ramblings are confined primarily to the American scene.)
And while it is of course true that Madeleine L’Engle and Ray Bradbury have received all sorts of awards and accolades, and that a century from now the Rings and Narnia books will probably still be major cash cows, certain types of books continue to be frowned upon in certain circles. The situation just is what it is.
Thankfully, these Americans do have their champions, including heavyweights like Edward Wagenknecht and Gore Vidal, who from time to time have opened the windows and let in some fresh air and sunshine. And then there is The Library of America with its volumes devoted to H.P. Lovecraft, Edgar Allan Poe, Kurt Vonnegut and Charles Brockden Brown, as well as its two-volume set of American Fantastic Tales which includes a Ray Bradbury story. (Bradbury is also represented in the Writing Los Angeles anthology.) Hopefully this prestigious and vitally important publishing project will someday include volumes devoted to L’Engle, Baum, Burroughs and Bradbury.
And as for that fifth name: Notwithstanding the fact that he won two Pulitzer Prizes and that Orson Welles thought very highly of him indeed, and that The Magnificent Ambersons squeaked in at number 100 on the Modern Library’s list of 100 best English language novels a few years back, when is someone – anyone – going to pay just a little bit of attention to Booth Tarkington? And not in the form of a condescending reference to him being some sort of minor league Mark Twain. Once again, hopefully The Library of America will lead the way.
Anyway… Once my lists were complete, the frustration kicked in almost immediately. My group of films included a dozen that I definitely would not want to be without on that island. But I quickly realized that there is easily another dozen or so that I feel the same way about.
However, when I started to contemplate my list of authors, that’s when the trouble really started. And after about two minutes I was ready to smash my computer and throw it out the nearest window.
There was no problem with the names and the implicit list of books. The problem was with the names and books that were not there. No Dylan Thomas? Or Sarah Orne Jewett? And where were my priceless copies of Alvin Tresselt and Roger Duvoisin’s Autumn Harvest and White Snow Bright Snow? And what about Anne Morrow Lindbergh’s Gift from the Sea? And Robert McCloskey’s Time of Wonder and Homer Price? And the Little House books? And my favorite pig Freddy?
Thankfully, I soon realized that since I’m unlikely to find myself on that island any time soon, my time would be better spent reading and watching rather than worrying. And I realized too that there is no point in concerning myself with what high-brow critics and literary king makers think or say about anything.
And for proof, or rather a very energizing sense of validation and vindication, I tried to imagine what the world’s greatest storyteller might have to say on this subject. Someone who was capable of producing a work of astonishing psychological complexity like Great Expectations, but who also never forgot the pleasure to be found in picking up a copy of The Arabian Nights. Someone who understood and respected childhood, and a child’s point of view and voice, with a kind of percipience bordering on the supernatural. Someone who would not think an adult who reads children’s picture books strange or crazy.
Much has been written on the subject of Dickens and childhood, and by better Dickens scholars than I can ever hope to be. But I guess that has never stopped my mind from racing on this particular subject. And when it does, it usually stops pretty quickly and shifts into a fast idle on A Christmas Carol.
The Carol is, of course, a brilliant book on so many levels. And while its brilliance is perfectly integrated into a seamless whole, it is also made up of many memorable vignettes and set pieces, some of which are quite brilliant in and of themselves.
Such a moment occurs when the Ghost of Christmas Past shows Scrooge one of his lonely Christmas holidays in which he has been left behind at school with only his books for company. And suddenly, as they look upon the young boy, Ali Baba appears outside the window. For Scrooge it is a moment of joyous affirmation as he assures the spirit that on a particular Christmas Ali Baba did come to visit him and relieve his loneliness.
This important scene tends to be omitted when the story is adapted for film and television. This is unfortunate because if one is looking for a key to unlock the mystery of Charles Dickens, and maybe even the mystery of one’s own life, it is not a bad place to start.
One version that does include it is the brilliant 1984 production starring George C. Scott as a particularly bold, assertive and confident Scrooge. As I note in my book: “Scrooge then sits down right next to his younger self who, as described by Dickens, is shown engrossed in a book. But there are no tears here, nor the sorrowful lament of ‘Poor boy!’ found in Dickens’s text. This Scrooge dismisses the ghost’s suggestion that the boy has no real friends, and that the solace found in books is no substitute for human contact: ‘Robinson Crusoe not real? And Friday? And the parrot, with green body and yellow tail, not real? He made do, this boy.’”
That’s what it’s all about, isn’t it. Making do. And while we’re at it, hopefully not ending up like Susan Pevensie who stopped believing in talking lions. Hopefully not loosing our ability to hear the great storytellers. The people whose job it is to help us make do.
Including, of course, the greatest of them all. The one whose favorite film, were he alive today, just might be Sullivan’s Travels. The one who, in 1843, produced the ultimate O Brother, Where Art Thou? — and yet never lost touch with something that he thought about often and cared about greatly. Fancy. Which is why he’d also love Martin Scorsese’s Hugo, and the book that inspired it, both of which are currently making a serious bid to break into my own top ten list of desert island favorites.
He’s the one who is always standing in the spirit at our elbows…
Along these lines, and if I was going to be stuck on that island after all, if I could have only one work of literary criticism with me it would be Childhood Regained: The Art of the Storyteller by Fernando Savater. This was first published in the United States by Columbia University Press, in 1982, as part of its European Perspectives series.
Its prologue is absolutely priceless and dead on target (and also just plain funny) in its skewering of certain types of pretentious literary — and cinematic — dunderheads. But most importantly, as its title suggests, it is one of those works that makes me wish I were ten years old again and just discovering that the world of books and movies can be a source of endless joy and refuge.
On that level alone, but probably many others, Dickens would like this book. He would definitely “get it.”
So what non-Dickensian books and DVDs would you want close at hand on that island?