Over the weekend my daughter asked to watch the newest BBC version of the Dickens classic Great Expectations. It wasn’t the acting or the fact that Agent Scully from X-Files played the crazy Miss Havisham. It was because, at my prodding, Abbi read the book. I have a copy of it as it’s one of my favorite books of all time.
As I write daily, it always seemed to me the best way to write better was to read those whose writing was, let’s face it, better than mine. I, like so many of my classmates in high school and college, loathed having to read “the classics” when they came part of an assignment. I don’t particularly think it’s because they were hard to read or that they didn’t connect with us. It was simply the fact that, in our hormone-addled, swirling maelstrom of a teenage mind we didn’t want to – because an authority figure told us we had to do it.
But there were glimmers in those early years of my life where I began to see the value in reading both Dickens and Shakespeare. The thing you had to realize was what brought you that connection. Ask me for years what my favorite book was – and even today – I’d tell you The Lord of the Rings. But still, there are classical and even biblical elements to the story. But if you asked my favorite writer, it wouldn’t be Tolkien. It would be Dickens. Tack to that the question of which is my favorite book and you won’t hear me say “please sir, may I have some more,” or “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times . . . ”
Great Expectations has always struck a chord with me. It’s not that I relate to the main character, Pip in any particular way. It’s the imagery. It’s the vivid details. Let’s face it, modern storytelling, even film making, owe a great debt to Dickens. Read Expectations without the chip on your shoulder about modern times or school day necessity . . . and then notice devices even you won’t have noticed if you’ve never read them. The nasty sister, beating her brother for the fact she has to care for me, not really his behavior. The mysterious “benefactor” who Pip thinks is the crazy mistress of Havisham house . . . and the bizarre twist of who shows up with the money.
But go farther: the most basic and terrible of television shows might give you that twist. Tell you who the woman Pip falls in love with; the man with the scar’s identity; the connection to his love, her crazy adopted mother . . . and the connection of family.
Family, your roots, your connection to life. That’s what it’s about. It’s not my longing for my ancestry, not at all. It’s possible that I connect because of what I tell my kids: “we’re stronger together than when we’re apart.” My daughter read Expectations and cried when she got to the part where his sister’s husband, Joe, who loves Pip like a son comes to make sure he’s still alive and well and is rejected. The fact Joe tells him he understands why makes it even harder. We watched the movie, as much as has changed since the original text, and the connection’s still there. My daughters, both of them, love Dickens’ writing. So do my sons.
Without knowing it, I’ve exposed them to amazing things without their hatred of authority. The boys look forward every winter to my reading the original A Christmas Carol from the 1900 edition I have on my bookshelf. Scary as it is in its original form. Abbi loves Tale of Two Cities and Great Expectations because she not only loves the twists and turns in his writing but loves how the twists are so completely unexpected – and there’s no bits of reflection to lead you there except in the beginning – that she reads on.
Good writing shines through.
That’s true of books, comics, music, film, all of it. Years ago, when Abbi was little and the Disney Channel was promoting Christina Aguilera and Britney Spears as role models, I was frustrated. My cousin told me “let them have their Genie in a Bottle moments. But after that runs, throw in some Beatles and Allman Brothers. When Britney is done, let them hear Layla and see what good stuff is like. Long after they’ve stopped listening to the crap the amazing writing will shine through.”
You know what? They’re right. The other day I was in the car and the wine glass intro to Shine on You Crazy Diamond by Pink Floyd started playing. My 9-year-old son pegged the song in seconds.
Without knowing I’d done it, I’ve exposed my kids to good writing and worthwhile art. But even more impressive, I’ve realized that they’ve come to love it . . . my daughter using Shakespeare for her audition in a play. She realized, after first I, then her teachers, told her to read it out loud . . . to watch Brannagh and Tennant do his comedies . . . that it is amazing writing. I loved watching her emotions run the roller coaster with all the amazing classical literature. She’s reading Conan-Doyle because she heard producer Steven Moffat tell the world how they used the original text more than you’d think for Sherlock.
Good will out. Sometimes it’s best to run like the Dickens.