My wife has long told me that I am afraid of long books. I think she’s right. Since college, I’ve only read a few books that were as long as 600 pages (not counting Harry Potter books – I’m just talking literature here), and I’ve been pretty selective about starting any book of more than around 400 pages. This does limit one’s options, especially in the realm of serious literature.
The flip side, however, is that I get great satisfaction from actually reading a book of that length. I’ve built reading long books up so much in my mind that completing one – especially doing so in a relatively short length of time – feels like a great achievement. As a result, I was very pleased to find Charles Dickens’ The Pickwick Papers to be a great read, and, with some help from a too-long travel day and a stomach virus, managed to knock it off in just two weeks.
The Pickwick Papers (#76 on the The Novel 100) was Dickens’ first novel and is unique in his canon as both a comedy and a picaresque novel, making it much more readable than that scourge of all of our high school years, Great Expectations. Pickwick follows the four members of the “Pickwick Club,” a sort of traveling social group of four men, led by the elder Samuel Pickwick, and his three followers. Like most picaresque novels, the book is structured around a series of stories, and was in fact sold in monthly installments as it was written, but the stories last longer and are more interconnected in Pickwick than in other classics of the genre, like The Adventures of Roderick Random. The central storyline, emblematic of Dickens’ later subject matter, is a lawsuit, allowing Dickens to satirize the justice system, crooked lawyers, and greedy people, but threaded through it are the romantic follies of his followers and his loyal servant, Samuel Weller, as well as the Pickwick Club’s run-ins with the fraudster Alfred Jingle.
The novel is a masterpiece of plot construction and comic invention. Dickens weaves the subplots together and deftly paces the stories to keep them fresh in the reader’s mind without revealing too much of any one subplot at once. Although the story relies heavily on coincidences – mostly characters running into each other – it was a common plot device of the time. And the wit in his prose is tremendous, from Dickens’ descriptions of some of his fringe characters (“his forehead was narrow, his face wide, his head large, and his nose all on one side, as if Nature, indignant with the propensities she observed in him in his birth, had given it an angry tweak which it had never recovered”) to satires large and small on all manner of persons.
If you’re up for the 840-page read, I recommend the 2004 Signet Classics edition (linked above) because of the presence of a short afterword by Jasper Fforde, who sings the novel’s praises and also mentions the fate of some of the landmark buildings mentioned in the book, a few of which survive to this day. And if you’re not up for it, I suggest that you hop over to Project Gutenberg, download the free e-text, and read Chapter 49. It’s a self-contained story that is just brilliantly delivered, and a good taste of what the best parts of The Pickwick Papers have to offer.
Next up: Darkness at Noon, by Arthur Koestler.