November 7, 2016


I live on a mountain.


I need to lose thirty pounds.


What’s the connection? Other than the unabashed self-involvement, I mean. Easy. At least four times a week, I walk two miles up that mountain and two miles back down. I gotta drop those thirty pounds!


The first mile is straight up, or so it feels. To distract myself from the unpleasant sensation that I am on the verge of a cardiac arrest,  I have been listening -- when the sound of my own gasping doesn’t completely obliterate it --  to DAVID COPPERFIELD.  The novel, not the magician.



                             What a show-off! Anyway, to me, the real magic is in the novel. (But I do like those pancakes.)



Every writer, and reader, too, has an author or book they turn to when they need comfort of one kind or another. For me, that author has always been Dickens. Okay. I know he’s sentimental. But I am not so highbrow that I mind. The sad truth is I have never been cool.


My taste runs to the old-fashioned. I guess for me, many contemporary authors seem so afraid of sentimentality that they sometimes forget about the real thing, sentiment. PLus, I have ot have a story. And so, Dickens. Give me Pip or Esther Summerson or Oliver or Sidney Carton. And let’s not forget about the bad guys: Fagin, Mr. Tulkinghorn, Daniel Quilp. I love me a good villain. In that way I’m very Old Testament.


As a writer for kids, and as a person who remembers almost nothing of his own early days as he stumbled through this vale of tears, I am so grateful for the way Dickens evokes the mystery, the confusion, the terror, the wonder of childhood.


    The great man himself. I love that coat! The hairstyle? Maybe not. (Charles Dickens:CD. David Copperfield: DC.



Take, for example, Chapter 2 of DAVID COPPERFIELD, “I Observe" in which the hero recalls some of his earliest memories. In the brief passage below, he describes toddling between his beloved mother and his equally beloved nanny, Peggotty. Let's read:


“I believe I can remember those two at a little distance apart, dwarfed to my sight by stooping down or kneeling on the floor, and I going unsteadily from one to the other. I have an impression on my mind which I cannot distinguish from actual remembrance of the touch of Peggotty’s forefinger as she used to hold it out to me, and of its being roughened by needlework, like a pocket nutmeg-grater.”


First, that detail -- Peggotty’s finger, so different from his own, "roughened by needlework, like a pocket nutmeg-grater." Uh . . . wow.  But these few lines also call forth the relative smallness of the child, something we often forget about, and the tottering, instability of those early days. Then, there’s the implied encouragement of those who loved us. To me, this is just about perfect.


         A pocket nutmeg-grater. I wish I had one. Not that i especially love nutmeg, but it's such a nifty little thing,


But I also love the implicit doubt. Let's look at the text again. The adult David doesn’t remember. He believes he can remember. He doesn’t report a fact, but an impression. One that he cannot distinguish from actual memory.  And are they stooping? Or kneeling? He isn’t certain.


Dickens knows that this calling into question of a possible memory from the distant past has the effect of making us trust the narrator (and his memory) more than if he had been absolutely certain. A lesser writer, me, for example, eager to get on with it, would have been satisfied with “I remember”. But Dickens is never in a hurry. (A good practice for any writer, by the way, and one which I'll post about later.) In this case, he gives his narrator all the time he needs to remind us how memories, especially memories of childhood, actually work. We can never be sure. 


                                    A picture of my childhood memories. Are you there, Freud? It's me, David.


So thank you, Charles Dickens, for giving me so much pleasure and for helping me forget, however briefly, that I am trudging up a mountain when we both know I'd rather be napping with Quiggy nestled in beside me and a plate of B’s molasses cookies on the bedside table.


And if I’m honest – it’s 40 pounds.


Feel free to leave a comment below. I'd love to hear from you. Oh, and catch me on Instagram. daelliott1234


See you in a couple of  Mondays.



First in his class at nap school.



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