Thursday, September 24, 2009

Quote, Unquote

While collecting my favorite quotes from books, I discovered that quite a few of them come from Charles Dickens novels. I always knew I liked Dickens, but I never realized why. At least, not really. If you were to ask me earlier why I liked Charles Dickens, my answer probably would have been great characters, his grasp of both comedy and drama, his theatrical sensibility, his social conscience, his role in the popularity of Christmas, and any number of other reasons. You know what never jumps to mind first? Writing. Isn’t that funny? He is one of my favorite authors, and I never think to remember his writing skills. Perhaps the answer seems too obvious, and so I assume that it’s a given. Regardless, this attribute should not be overlooked.

It sounds so simple: I like Charles Dickens because he writes well. But I can’t say that about every author I encounter or every book I read. I like other writers for various reasons. Perhaps I should explain.

Story comes first. Whether it be a book, a play, a film, a song, or whatever, story always comes first. I am much more willing to forgive bad writing than I am willing to overlook a bad story. For example, Star Wars is a classic. However, some of its dialogue can make me cringe. Bad writing saved by its story. George Lucas himself has admitted he hates writing, and it is one of his weak points, but who cares?

And there is some writing that may not be bad, per se, but you just don’t mesh well with the author’s writing style. Like say, those people who have unsuccessfully attempted to read Tolkien but love watching the story in the Lord of the Rings movies. I had a similar experience with The Phantom of the Opera. Hard time reading it, but love the musical. And The Three Musketeers. Same thing. For me, a tough (and big) book to get through, but their adventures have always translated well on film. The bottom line is, for every author I like, I will always like their stories, if not necessarily their writing.

To clarify, perhaps it would be more accurate to say that for the authors I like, I do admire BOTH their writing and storytelling, but to varying degrees. The two are inevitably linked. Jack London is another author who I like specifically for his writing style. It’s kind of straightforward and unadorned (some might say boring), but in my opinion, he is one of the best prose writers out there. He knows how to be poetic without waxing poetic, if you get my drift. But he’s no Dickens. Dickens is so, well, quotable.

The only other writer that I can think of who is comparable to Dickens in his way with words is Shakespeare. I have a whole book of just Shakespeare quotes, not to mention a publication of his complete works. I think I’ve heard this said before, although I can’t remember where I heard it, and it is so true: Dickens is the Shakespeare of the novel.

In closing, here is a sample of my favorite Dickens quotes:

“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to heaven, we were all going direct the other way.” (A Tale of Two Cities)

“It is a far, far better thing that I do, than I have ever done; it is a far, far better rest that I go to than I have ever known.” (A Tale of Two Cities)

"I have endeavoured in this Ghostly little book, to raise the Ghost of an Idea, which shall not put my readers out of humour with themselves, with each other, with the season, or with me. May it haunt their houses pleasantly, and no one wish to lay it.

Their faithful Friend and Servant, C.D.
December, 1843."

(A Christmas Carol [Preface])

Marley was dead: to begin with.” (A Christmas Carol)

“And so, as Tiny Tim observed, God Bless Us Every One!” (A Christmas Carol)

“Whether I shall turn out to be the hero of my own life, or whether that station will be held by anybody else, these pages must show.” (David Copperfield)

* “The sound of a deep bell came along the wind. One.

‘Lie on,’ cried [Ralph Nickleby], ‘with your iron tongue! Ring merrily for births that make expectants writhe, and marriages that are made in hell, and toll ruefully for the dead whose shoes are worn already! Call men to prayers who are godly because not found out, and ring chimes for the coming in of every year that brings this cursed world nearer to its end.’ ”
(Nicholas Nickleby)

The Charles Dickens works that I’ve read include Great Expectations, A Tale of Two Cities, Oliver Twist, David Copperfield, A Christmas Carol, A Cricket On The Hearth, and Nicholas Nickleby. Yes, I’ve read a lot of Dickens, but anyone who is familiar with Dickens would know that I still have a long way to go.

*Edit: I forgot this quote from Nicholas Nickleby. Ralph Nickleby's speech before his demise. Even Dickens villains have their moments.