Sleep sometimes hides from me. When it does, I find words soothing. They distract me from my cares and allow me to unwind. The stories of Arthur Conan Doyle often gave me rest when I needed it, but now I have a new go-to book: The Pickwick Papers.
This pacifying use of the novel is not an insult to it, but a commendation of it. You see, The Pickwick Papers will stand close attention (I am sure any number of doctorates have been earned by unpacking it) but it also does a harder thing: it can stand slight attention.
Any academic hack can write something that can only be understood with care. It is much harder to change a reader while also encouraging him to relax. We know an author is masterful if he changes us while we are unfocussed. In Pickwick, Dickens does it.
So don’t sip Pickwick. Gulp it! Big gulp it! Gulp if you are free, not in some intellectual NYC where sipping is required. Like its portly main characters, most of whom strain a vest button or two until it pops right off, Pickwick wants to make you intellectually fat, though never intellectually lazy.
My great-aunt (almost old enough to remember Dickens’ time) viewed it as high praise to say a man or woman was “stout.” That kind of fatness is no longer in style, but to her, it meant to be big, well-fed, happy, and fit. A stout man can go on adventures, belly-laughing. It keeps off the gout.
There are, of course, lean Lenten reading times: modern writing is full of these passages. Reading even a paragraph of Joyce can strip a Christian down for action.
But where do we find a Sabbath rest in our reading? Where can we recreate without the foolishness that often accompanies light-heartedness?
Here! The Pickwick Papers are full and fun and feasting on food that, if eaten all the time, would kill a man, but taken here, with Dickens, simply makes him grand and stout.
What did this first of Dickens’ great works teach me? It left me with five questions:
First, Pickwick and his friends adventure locally. Dickens gently mocks their “deep,” “dark” adventures in tidy rural England, but still their exploits are still appealing. They journey slowly into an area and look at it. They don’t rush through it. They view it at human or horse speed. Can I learn to look at Sugar Land, my new hometown, that way? If I do, how will it change me?
Second, Dickens sees the humor in his society as well as its evils. He takes on prisons, not for the last time, but he does so with hope of redemption. Dickens is a socially active, humorous Christian. How could a secular society like ours be changed humorously?
Third, Dickens mocks his characters, but gently. Pickwick himself is a figure of fun, yet beloved. He is both wise and foolish–not unlike most of us by the time we reach a ripe old age! Is there a place in Christian society for healthy mockery?
Fourth, Sam Weller (like the other great literary Sam, Sam Gamgee of Lord of the Rings) becomes great by becoming a servant. Most of my career has functioned as being (at best!) the number two person to a greater man: Clyde Cook, Barry Corey, and now Robert Sloan. And, in my experience, it’s not a bad thing at all. What can Weller teach us about the dignity of having a “boss?”
Finally, how does Dickens educate our souls while making us relax and laugh? Why is so much “serious” modern writing grim?
Dickens wrote Bleak House and Great Expectations, so he knew how to tell hard truths. He wrote Old Curiosity Shoppe, a book in which he made himself sad, much less his reader. Yet Pickwick shows that Dickens also knew how to make his readers laugh, a skill he never lost, without debasing their minds. He was comic without clownishness.
Can most comedians say the same?