Discovering the magic of Story

I mentioned last December that I was reading A Christmas Carol to our six-year-old at bedtime. Until then, we’d been reading children’s books. I could knock off a children’s book in under five minutes, kiss him, tuck him in, and be back downstairs without missing too much action from whatever sporting event I was watching.

It was great for me as a sports fan, and it kept up the routine of a bedtime story, but there wasn’t much else to it. Meanwhile, the boy was progressing as a reader in his own right, but he viewed reading as a chore.

As I read him the original version of A Christmas Carol, I noticed he paid more attention, rather than just counting it as time spent with Daddy, and more importantly, a precious delay in bedtime.

Maybe he needed something more engaging than the average children’s book when not doing the hard work of reading himself. Maybe he didn’t enjoy reading because he’d never been hooked on the idea of Story. He’d never been bitten by the bug that makes a person need to know what happens next.

After Christmas, instead of going back to children’s books, we moved on to Grimm’s Fairy Tales. As with Dickens, we stayed away from watered-down versions. We went full-strength, with all its violence and villainy. If you think this is too much ugliness for an innocent first-grader, just listen to a few of them have a conversation or look at what they’re watching on TV.

Admittedly, the lessons of Grimm’s are sometimes questionable. In the story about the shoemaker’s elves, the elves do wonderful favors for the shoemaker, right up until the shoemaker shows his gratitude by leaving them presents. His presents motivate the elves to abandon him, leaving the impression he would have been better off as an ingrate.

But these iffy morals lead to questions. They let us talk about the story, which the children’s books seldom did. They make us think.

I bought a kids’ version of Grimm’s for him to read to me. For a while, reading it was something he wanted to be rewarded for. The other day, he told me he’d read ahead, on his own – something he’s never done before. He’s started reading to me at bedtime.

Grimm's for all ages.

Nighttime reading for father and son.

Maybe he’s just naturally maturing, or maybe he’s discovering the magic of Story; maybe both.

I’m saving Hans Christian Andersen for when we’re done with Grimm’s. I want him to be a practiced listener when we get to Andersen. While many of the lessons of Grimm’s boil down to “Don’t be stupid” or “Watch your back,” Andersen’s morals are often less ambiguous, while at the same time, more complex. There are tales of self-sacrifice, which is not only a good thing to hear once in a while, it usually makes for an interesting story.

Hans

Give us a little magic to dream on, Mr. Andersen.

Hans Christian Andersen resides in my personal Pantheon of Storytellers. I’m not sure how comfortable he is there, wedged between Twain and Thurber, but that’s his problem. I’m hoping he can foster a love of Story in my son, and maybe even get him to like reading a little. You’ve got to admire anybody who’s still giving out gifts 140 years after his death.

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What could be better than Mr. Magoo?

In my last post, I mentioned that I am reading A Christmas Carol to my son. I want him to know the original text. Here’s how I discovered the original.

I first stumbled across A Christmas Carol one January when I worked at a bookstore. Normally, mid-January is not the best time to read a Christmas tale, but for a retail worker, that is about the time when you finally are allowed to enjoy the Christmas season, so it was not an untimely find.

I found it among some unsold Christmas books, pulled from the shelves when their season passed. Having nothing better to do on my lunch hour, I began to read. I’d never read Dickens in school and I thought I had done well to avoid him. I’d known the plot of this story since toddlerhood, when Mr. Magoo performed it for me. I expected to find that this Dickens fellow had merely supplied a stiff, uninspired outline that Mr. Magoo had turned to gold with his top-of-the-line production values and his sterling acting ability.

I was mistaken. I found myself engrossed in an excellent story, beautifully told. Dickens did not bore me; he charmed me. If I had not loved this story until that point in my life, it was only because Mr. Magoo, and all the many Scrooges in film, had not done it justice. It was hard to think of old Magoo in this light, but the printed pages told the truth of the matter.

Scrooge Magoo

Even a genius of entertainment like Magoo couldn’t match the the magic of the original.

There is a reason why A Christmas Carol has endured for 170 years, and it is not because Mr. Magoo and Scrooge McDuck waste their valuable time remaking narrative duds. You can’t throw a cherry cordial in a department store without hitting a DVD knock-off version. I use knock-off glibly because even the best film versions are knock-offs compared to the original text. People out to make a quick buck repackaging an old product don’t pile onto a loser.

A Christmas Carol endures because it gets so many of the elements of story-telling right. The plot arc is a pristine bell curve of narrative art. There are no awkward outliers to skew the meaning, nor burrs of unresolved plot points. The narrative moves forward with purposeful strides through every scene.

The writing is colorful, witty, playful, and endearing. These are not words often associated with Victorian works, which is why the book surprised me so much. The greatness in the work is that the writing is also very powerful. Combining playful and powerful is a rare accomplishment in any era.

If a traditional plot arc is not your thing, A Christmas Carol may not be your favorite. I wouldn’t argue with that opinion, but I would suggest that any time you read a Christmas story about a character’s redemption, that character is probably a long-lost grandchild of Ebenezer Scrooge.

The Ghost of Storytelling Past

I’m reading A Christmas Carol to my six-year-old at bedtime every night. I could have picked up a children’s version for him, but I’m going with the original, even though much of it will fly over his head.

I made this decision for three reasons:

  1. I’m cheap and didn’t want to buy another version of a book I already own.
  2. I’m not a fan of watered down versions of books. If the boy opts for a children’s book, we’ll choose one that began as a children’s book.
  3. I think one of the parts that is the first to be cut in the children’s versions is one of the parts I most want my children to hear.

Reasons 1 and 2 are self-explanatory. Let me explain reason 3.

A Christmas Carol is a brilliant story. It wouldn’t have been made into a million different movies if it weren’t. There’s so much to love about it, and so much to like in many of its offspring films. But there is one thing that the original text has that nothing else does.

Dickens

The beautifully illustrated edition we read.

The original has Dickens himself as the storyteller.

I’m not just talking about his genius with words. I’m not just talking about his ability to set a tone or his command of the narrative. I’m talking about those instances when the narrator comes onto the page and speaks directly to the reader. This is an ancient form of magic, all but lost to us now.

It is a relic of the time when children heard stories at their elders’ knees, when stories were enriched by the personality of the storyteller.

You can’t do that today. We won’t stand for it. We want our stories delivered anonymously, not chuckled to us by a narrator who presumes to refer to himself in the first person. We don’t want it to smell of grandpa’s after shave; we want an antiseptic story to be beamed through the vacuum of space, like it is on TV.

We want to be shown, not told.

Now, I will be the first admit that some of the old fellows did too much telling. I will also agree that showing is far more effective than telling in our time, when much of the art of storytelling has been lost. But I will argue that there is a mix that includes both showing and telling that is the rarest treasure in the unveiling of a story.

Dickens was a master at the mixology of show and tell. And who could appreciate show and tell more than a first grader? Okay, maybe a kindergartener, but what’s done is done.

I want to offer my children the chance to hear the storyteller’s voice — to appreciate when a story is even better because of who is telling it and what his character adds to the telling.

Maybe they won’t catch it this year, but there’s always the next. And besides Dickens, we’ve got lots of Hans Christian Andersen to get to.

I was just too young to love you

Like many American teens, I was the victim of a well-meaning society that used high school English classes to pound an appreciation of classic literature into my head. Like many American teens, I rebelled against this attempt to pry open my mouth and pour culture down my throat. Unlike many who endured this experience, I went back to the well of literature, in my own good time.

I’m lucky. Some unexplainable motivation drove me back into the arms of the people to whom I had been so rudely introduced in high school. The clumsy way these folks were pushed into my face might have put me off reading altogether, as I’m sure it did to some.

Fortunately, I had friends like Edgar Rice Burroughs, who kept me entertained with his less-than-classic adventures. While school was doing all it could to sour me on reading, Tarzan, and an assortment of Martians, kept my nose in books.

Charles Dickens

He looks so stern and boring, but he’s a little Dickens on the inside.

This still doesn’t explain why I came back to the “classics.” That was dumb luck. Without luck, I still wouldn’t have a good word to say about John Steinbeck. In school, I hated Steinbeck; I hated that little dog of his; I hated the cob-job of travel trailer he supposedly tooled around America in; and I hated the arrogance that made him think I had the least bit of interest in his vacation. These fires of hatred burned so brightly that they blinded me to the merits of The Red Pony or Of Mice and Men.

Years later, I picked up East of Eden, and read it with actual pleasure – something I had no right to expect, from my past dealings with its author. I re-read Of Mice and Men, a great story, even though I can’t quite put my mind into George’s way of thinking at the end. I’ve never returned to Travels With Charley though, and I doubt I ever will. I’m afraid it would stoke up that dormant hatred again. It was a horrible choice for introducing a young reader to Steinbeck. I get angry just thinking about it.

High school prejudiced me against people I’d never met. Somehow, I got through those years without having been made to read Dickens. This was my great escape. I was sure that Dickens would make me gag, just the same as the other old timers had. It was years before I got brave enough to pick up A Christmas Carol, mostly by accident. For all those years, I had counted a man among my enemies who should have been among my dearest friends. But I suffered from an extended case of Dickens-phobia, along with Shakespeare-phobia, and all the other phobias associated with my forced exposure to books heavier than my immature attention span.

The phobia I’ve never overcome is the one about Shakespeare. Every English teacher in school was determined to make my class appreciate Shakespeare. There was no reprieve from Shakespeare; his ghost haunted every grade level.

william shakespeare

I’m still wary of him after all the kids he humiliated in front of the entire class.

What made Shakespeare so insufferable was the demonic idea that his plays must be read aloud in class. If you can’t despise a piece of literature enough, reading it silently to yourself, just have your 10th grade classmates stumble over the text until even the teacher can endure no more and calls upon someone else to stumble. To this day I cannot read Shakespeare for fear that I will hear a teenager’s tortured voice as he stammers and stutters, banging his shins against those hurdles of words, arranged in an order completely nonsensical to everything he has ever read before.

How many more readers of classic literature would there be if only our teachers had respected the literature a little more, rather than spraying it at us from a fire hose? If a teacher had given me Hamlet and said, “I think you’ve earned this,” I would have put more effort into understanding it. Even if they had said, “You’re not ready for this yet,” I would have wanted to figure out why not. That’s the way I got interested in beer.

My peers and I became devotees of beer, mostly because nobody in authority thought we deserved it. We showed them. Maybe I’ve reached the point where I’ve earned another crack at Shakespeare, but I’m haunted by traumatic memories. Even though I don’t deserve it any more than I ever did, I’ll probably crack a beer instead.