As a writer, prolific reader, and general literary type, I am often asked for book recommendations. Rather than tell people directly what to read, I instead say what I’m reading at the moment. After they ask “Who?” I know I am safe from their wrath later, when they would have wondered why on earth I thought they would like (insert snooty book of choice here). But even that is too personal, so right now, if asked, I would say that, in addition to a novel I will not divulge because of the concerns cited approximately 50 words ago, I am reading a lot of material on what people are reading during the pandemic. And if there’s anything worse than reading another dull piece about what people are reading during the pandemic, it’s someone writing a review of the dull piece that reminded them how dull it is to read a piece about what people are reading during the pandemic.
On the other hand, I can’t get to where I want in this essay without mentioning the one book that came up more than most in those lists: The Plague, by Albert Camus. There’s a part of me that understands this. I’m no psychiatrist, but it seems the part of our brains that would want to read a book about the plague during a plague-lite is the same part of our brains that likes horror movies, documentaries about serial killers, dystopian novels, and the like. The appeal lies in the unreality of what we are processing. In theory, some hockey-masked psychopath could murder some sex-deranged teenagers at a summer camp, but it’s not likely. In the unlikely event a real-world mass murderer did kill dozens of innocent people—e.g. Ted Bundy—it would be “somewhere else,” the place all bad things happen, and it would happen to “someone else,” the victim in all these instances. As for dystopian novels, perhaps it’s the sense of relief we get from finishing them: well, life may be bad, but at least we’re not in Oceania or Gilead.
But reading The Plague right now seems downright masochistic. It’s been years since I’ve read the book, so I’m not hip to the details, but I don’t need to be. Anything with the world “plague” in it, even if it’s “A Sure-Fire Way To Avoid Anything With The Word ‘Plague’ In It,” is off-limits. And really, it’s not even that specific. In my current reading life, I want nothing to do with the real world, which is not difficult considering the absurd size of my library. (For details, please see my mounting credit card bills. Donations accepted; no ID required.)
Just before the pandemic hit, I had an unusually large reading list. Not a larger quantity of books, since my “to read” pile was as absurd as ever, but the literal size of some of the books—and in particular one stands out as being rather tome-like: Capital and Ideology, Thomas Piketty’s follow-up to Capital in the 21st Century. I had got about 65 pages or so in before I gave up the pursuit. It wasn’t that I didn’t want to keep reading or that the book was not interesting. It was that, though a large book that might take days and days to finish might seem like a very good idea, reading about the ills of unfettered free-market capitalism seemed like a very bad idea.
So I was reminded of Thomas Carlyle and the famous quote from his novel Sartor Resparus, but instead of hearing “close thy Byron, open thy Goethe,” a voice whispered “close thy Piketty, open thy Anything Else Not So Serious.” Thankfully, I had just the book on hand: Charles Dickens’ The Pickwick Papers. Whether you like Dickens or not, Pickwick, his first successful novel, represents sweet, delirious escapism.
The book is an absolute treasure. It is a Seinfeld episode on steroids: it is absolutely about nothing even as a hundred things are always happening, often more ridiculous than the previous hundred things. Politics, if they are mentioned, are skewered on all sides. Drama, if it is invoked, isn’t very dramatic and is performed by the usual assortment of Dickensian side characters with their usual assortment of colourful names. Real-life concerns, if manifested, are presented much less seriously than even the mild Jane Austen.
The whole book is more or less a continuing stream of tall tales told most often about the main characters, but also some fabulous asides told by the ancillary ones—some tales are taller than others, some tales may have even happened. Like the astonishing assortment of brilliant names Dickens conjures, the stories are too numerous to mention here. But my personal favourite is about a ghost and the discussion he has with a man occupying the haunter’s room. The man brings up a concept about ghosts that hides in plain sight—not some abstraction such as whether or not ghosts exist, but a precise idea.
“Well,” said the man, “I don’t apply the observation personally to you, because it is equally applicable to most of the ghosts I ever heard of; but it does appear to be somewhat inconsistent, that when you have an opportunity of visiting the fairest spots of earth—for I suppose space is nothing to you—you should always return exactly to the very places where you have been most miserable.”
“Egad, that’s very true; I never thought of that before,” said the ghost. “You are very right, sir,” said the ghost politely. “It never struck me till now; I’ll try a change of air directly.”
Before the ghost can completely disappear (his legs already have), the man asks the ghost if he would tell the other ghosts of the world they too would be more comfortable somewhere else.
“I will,” replied the ghost; “We must be dull fellows, very dull fellows, indeed; I can’t imagine how we can have been so stupid.”
Ghost stories like this one are joined by stories about goblins, naturally. Some Dickensian social commentary is never far away, but it’s not nearly as heavy-handed as in his later works. And at any rate, there are so many other avenues of pleasure to savour. A phrase that has survived longer than you think will catch you unawares (Pickwick was the “fearless leader” of his club), and more than occasionally a character will surprise us with a remark so penetrating it’s difficult to believe it came from the mind of such a young writer (Dickens was 25 when he wrote Pickwick).
“Wen you’re a married man, Samivel, you’ll understand a good many things as you don’t understand now; but vether it’s worth while goin’ through so much, to learn so little… is a matter o’ taste.”
So that is one view of marriage, courtesy of Sam Weller the elder, urging Sam Weller the younger to avoid it altogether. It’s a bit grim, but then again, so is marriage.
Grim too is having too many books to read and not enough time. There is simply too much I know I will never get to read. And because of that long and growing list, I will read some books faster than others in order to get to the next. While much of that is a response to a given work’s quality, I keep in mind the stacks and stacks that await me and sometimes adjust my speed accordingly. Not so with Pickwick. I have not finished it, and I have not picked up another book in the meantime; I never want it to end. My piles of books loom as impressive as ever, but I am in no rush to get to them. And since The Pickwick Papers is a very large book (over 700 pages), it never feels I am near the end, and thus the illusion of a never-ending story about nothing can trick me into thinking the adventures of Messrs. Pickwick, Snodgrass, Winkle, Weller (both of them), Wardle, Tupman, and all the rest—even Mr. Jingle!—will just go on and on and on, even as the greedy world demands attention along with Pickwick and the books I am not reading because of it.
Of course it won’t go on and on and on, but the illusion of its infinitude is powerful. As for all the other non-literary stuff on the other side of the The Pickwick Papers lurking skulking calculating when the illusion dissolves, like my mountain of books it too isn’t going anywhere.