I intentionally withheld a book from my last blog, “Books of Influence.”
If you were to ask a reader what their favorite book was, they might well find it a difficult question to answer. There are scores of things to take into consideration in order to pair favorites down to a top 10 list, never mind a singular favorite. I, on the other hand, have no such issue.
I was an insatiable reader since early childhood, always categorized as advanced by my teachers. I suffered anxiety disorder as a child, a solitary life was my norm, books became my friends. I do not know if this was a cause and effect relationship, or if I was truly gifted in reading. But I do know it was this overwhelming need to shove my nose in a book that led me to Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol (1843) when I was perhaps ten years old.
I recall it was summertime. Two weeks into my school vacation and I had already tackled my summer reading list. I went to my local library to stock up. A summer earlier, I had long since drifted from the children’s and young adult areas to full on fiction. Floating amongst the alphabetized authors, I spotted a familiar title, A Christmas Carol, ‘Oh, like the Mickey movie.’ No, as I would soon discover. A Christmas Carol was not written for children, not in the least. It had an important message, clearly, how else do you explain the many film versions, most child-friendly? But no. The original written version was intended for a very adult audience.
This was the passage my eyes first fell as I flicked through the book:
They were a boy and a girl. Yellow, meagre, ragged, scowling, wolfish; but prostrate, too, in their humility. Where graceful youth should have filled their features out, and touched them with its freshest tints, a stale and shrivelled hand, like that of age, had pinched, and twisted them, and pulled them into shreds. Where angels might have sat enthroned, devils lurked, and glared out menacing. No change, no degradation, no perversion of humanity, in any grade, through all the mysteries of wonderful creation, has monsters half so horrible and dread.
Scrooge started back, appalled. Having them shown to him in this way, he tried to say they were fine children, but the words choked themselves, rather than be parties to a lie of such enormous magnitude.
“Spirit, are they yours?” Scrooge could say no more.
“They are Man’s,” said the Spirit, looking down upon them. “And they cling to me, appealing from their fathers. This boy is Ignorance. This girl is Want. Beware them both, and all of their degree, but most of all beware this boy, for on his brow I see that written which is Doom, unless the writing be erased. Deny it!” cried the Spirit, stretching out its hand towards the city. “Slander those who tell it ye. Admit it for your factious purposes, and make it worse. And abide the end.”
“Have they no refuge or resource?” cried Scrooge.
“Are there no prisons?” said the Spirit, turning on him for the last time with his own words. “Are there no workhouses?”
The bell struck twelve.
A Christmas Carol, by Charles Dickens
This passage terrified me and for several reasons. First of which, I had never read of children depicted in this way. Starved, sickly, twisted, humiliated creatures. And if the context were to be believed, these children were made so by the neglect of man, or rather man’s indifference to the sufferings of others, even children. Second, the Ghost of Christmas Present named the children, “Ignorance,” and “Want,” the formula for suffering. I was scared at the thought of being either.
After giving A Christmas Carol the full read through, I understand how Christmas Present was mocking Scrooge with Scrooge’s own words, “Are there no prisons?” and “Are there no workhouses?” as a solution for dealing with the destitute.
Sometimes you come across something so powerful it influences you from the first moment of exposure and not casually. Some find inspiration in works of art, others in music, television, film, or in the actions and beliefs of others. I have those moments as well, but fiction will always take lead. The passage I read that day in my local library, and later the full story in my bedroom, impressed upon me a way of being. That passage taught me what I wanted to see in myself and in society. That passage has influenced me from that day to this, everything from my views on religion, to politics, to my own personal behavior when I meet someone of want…and when I meet someone of ignorance.
What works of fiction have influenced you? Was it powerful?