Sunday, March 12, 2006

Chesterton on Dickens

I've been very slowly working my way through Charles Dickens, The Last of the Great Men by G.K. Chesterton - reading it alongside other books for quite awhile now. It's so rich that I'm enjoying it more this way than plugging through it quickly like so many others. Chesterton has a masterful understanding of human nature. Here's a quote I particularly enjoyed. You could probably exchange the names of Guy Boothby or William Le Queux for many popular authors today...

[Dickens] was popular in a sense of which we moderns have not even a notion. In that sense there is no popularity now. There are no popular authors today. We call such authors as Mr. Guy Boothby or Mr. William Le Queux popular authors. But this is popularity altogether in a weaker sense; not only in quantity, but in quality. The old popularity was positive; the new is negative. There is a great deal of difference between the eager man who wants to read a book, and the tired man who wants a book to read. A man reading a Le Queux mystery wants to get to the end of it. A man reading the Dickens novel wished that it might never end. Men read a Dickens story six times because they knew it so well. If a man can read a Le Queux story six times it is only because he can forget it six times. In short, the Dickens novel was popular, not because it was an unreal world, but because it was a real world; a world in which the soul could live. The modern "shocker" at its very best is an interlude in life. But in the days when Dickens's work was coming out in serial, people talked as if real life were itself the interlude between one issue of "Pickwick" and another. (pgs. 73-74)

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