Friday, July 9, 2010

The Man Who Invented Christmas by Les Standiford

This book is not very timely -- who wants to read about Christmas in July?  Well, it's usually mighty hot here in Texas, and every summer I like to fantasize about snow, wearing wool sweaters and drinking hot beverages next to a roaring fire, when in fact I am huddled under an air conditioner with a sweaty glass of lemonade, looking longingly at my yard and wishing it were 20 degrees cooler so I could sit outside and enjoy it. 

So Dickens and Christmas is just about as opposite of a Texas summer as I can imagine.  This book is a short biography of Dickens, focusing on how and why he wrote his most beloved work, A Christmas Carol, and its huge impact on Western culture, specifically how most people celebrate or imagine Christmas. 

It begins with Dickens reading in Manchester for a charity fundraiser.  He was at a tough place in his current work, Martin Chuzzlewit, and facing personal and financial difficulties.  Like today, most writers are only as popular as their last work.  Dickens was in debt and needed something inspirational -- his previous work, American Notes for General Circulation, was not well received, and Chuzzlewit, his latest serial publication wasn't nearly as popular as the books that made him famous. 

The book includes a short background of Dickens' career before A Christmas Carol, and gives quite a lot of detail about his publishing history.  it's pretty depressing that one of the world's most beloved writers made so little money from his own works, since countries didn't recognize international copyrights.  There were bootleg versions and lousy knockoffs published in England as well -- at one point, he sues a publisher for a cheap imitation of his work.  He won the lawsuit, but the publisher declared bankruptcy, so Dickens wound up having to pay court costs for himself and the defendant as well!  Talk about adding insult to injury! (He did put this experience to good use as material for Bleak House).

There's also a lot of background about how the Christmas holidays had fallen out of favor and were barely celebrated in the manner that most people imagine. Dickens himself was writing about an idealized holiday. The popularity of this book inspired people to decorate and start buying more Christmas turkeys, which quickly surpassed the popularity of the traditional Christmas goose. (I've tasted roast goose, it was pretty dry; I'm not surprised that most people prefer turkey). Prince Albert also contributed Christmas traditions, popularizing Christmas trees.

I don't know that this book has anything particular insightful or groundbreaking.  If you're a Dickens fan you probably know all about his sad childhood, how he skyrocketed to fame with The Pickwick Papers, and his unhappy marriage and divorce.  It does help give some context and background, and there's some interesting background about 19th century publishing.  Standiford recommends Peter Ackroyd's biography of Dickens, (about 1200 pages!) which is sadly out of print, but I was intrigued enough to check it out of the library despite its length.

I'm also hoping that this book will inspire me to return to Dickens.  Reading his entire works is one of my lifelong goals, but I got discouraged with my most recent attempt, The Old Curiosity Shop, which I haven't touched in weeks. I started it and I found Quilp so repulsive I haven't picked it up again. 

This is book #9 for Our Mutual Read Challenge. 


  1. It's funny who we pick for lifetime works isn't it? You chose Dickens. I chose Nabokov...

  2. I read this book before I read any Dickens and knew very little about him. I think I did enjoy it so much because I didn't know Dickens well. But I agree that if you know quite a bit about his life, this may seem repetitive. Like you, I want to read all of Dickens over my lifetime. As much as I have loved the three works I have read, I find I have to space out his works or it is overkill.

  3. Amanda -- how many of Nabokov's works have you read so far? Are you getting anywhere near completing them all?

    Book Psmith -- which Dickens do you like best? I'm trying to decide if I should stick with Old Curiosity Shop or skip it and move on to Dombey and Son or Our Mutual Friend, which I've heard is wonderful.

  4. I've read 6 of 10 of his Russian fiction, 5 of 9 of his English fiction, one of his short stories (woefully behind here), none of his poetry or plays, none of his nonfiction. I don't plan to read all the poetry and nonfiction, just selected works, so of what I plan to read, I'd say I'm about 40-50% through.

  5. Wow. I've read about half of Dickens, but only one of the Christmas books. I've gotten stuck on Old Curiosity Shop so I either need to buckle down and read it or move on to something else.

  6. I was excited when I first heard about this book, and considered getting it for my father for Christmas (he loooooves Christmas), but I read a lot of reviews that agreed with yours that the book was nothing new and exciting. Alas!

  7. Jenny -- I think if the reader doesn't know much about Dickens already, it would be interesting. But for a Dickens fan, it might be something to check out of the library. Your dad might really like it -- is he a Dickens fan?

  8. My favorite so far is Great Expectations...two of the best weeks of my reading life:)