Notes from England: Charles Dickens’s Birthday, 2012 by Thomas Glave [Part Two]

To read part one, visit this page.

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Am I reveling in all of this revelry?  Yes, I am.  I really, really am.  It all makes me realize not only how deeply I take all this to heart – the celebration of a magnificent writer whose stories and profound and far-reaching social conscience still speak to us today, and should speak to us – but also that, given all the joy here in England about someone who was not only a writer but also a novelist – a person who actually wrote fiction, not self-help books — perhaps I maybe shouldn’t feel as sad and hopeless, and even a bit despairing, as I did when I read recently in the Huffington Post/UK that Claire Tomalin felt that (British) children and young people today didn’t have the mental “stamina” (my word) to read and understand Dickens because their attention spans were far too short, a result of having been reared on TV and other distractions that would undermine a reader’s muscles and finely tuned skills.  (The article’s headline, which immediately caught my attention, was “It Was the Best of Times, It Was. . .Sod It, Where’s My iPhone?” – Kids Lack ‘Attention Span’ For Dickens.”)

But here is a gift from an evening not so long ago – February 6th, the evening before Dickens’s birthday.  Now, more than ever, it is possible to remember the glow of golden light from bookshop windows onto a sidewalk where, on a chilly, quickly dark evening, I had momentarily gotten disoriented, in search as I was of one of the auditoriums of the University College of London.  I’d arrived at King’s Cross Station on the commuter train from Cambridge only a short while before, and taken one of the bright red buses from the station area down to Torrington Place, but then got slightly turned around – and that was all for the good, for the golden light gleaming invitingly out onto the pavement was from a Waterstones bookshop, with a wonderful display of all of Dickens’s novels beneath the large “Celebrate 200 Years of Dickens with Oxford University Press” sign.  There was also a large poster for Paul Shlicke’s The Oxford Companion to Charles Dickens, with that matchless photo of Dickens on the front cover.  (I suppose that Oxford University Press obviously paid for that space in the window – what book retailers call, I believe, “real estate,” the most desirable display space coveted by publishers, generally affordable by only the richer corporate publishers.  Otherwise, why would Oxford get so much space in these particular windows, and other publishers so little, especially given that Waterstones is not an independent bookshop but a chain company?)  There was also a copy of Ruth Richardson’s Dickens and the Workhouse, and of Jeremy Hartley’s The Selected Letters of Charles Dickens.  And yes, alongside those titles, it was nice to see that crusty old Hemingway was the Waterstones Author of the Month, with his novels displayed along with The Essential Hemingway.  And Jorge Luis Borges was the Waterstones Translated Author of the Month!  And so it was that, along with The Book of Imaginary Beings and The Perpetual Race of Achilles and the Tortoise, a copy of Dreamtigers was in the window display, calmly gazing out…

Before I turned away from the window I thought, lowering my eyes to the pavement and looking fixedly at that golden light: but of course: the making of all art is – must be – an act of complete faith, for anyone.  It is an act of faith anywhere that you do it, and in any form, any genre, because why should you believe that anyone will ever care about it?  With all the things in this world and on this planet to worry about and think about and preoccupy us and our finite energy, why should we care about something as potentially inconsequential as art, especially in the face of very real threats like war, death, cataclysm, famine, despotic regimes, ongoing genocides and purges, torturers and war criminals, present-day slavery and trafficking, environmental poisoning and degradation?  And more? (Although human responses to such catastrophes often seem to be art: responses in work that in fact often is, though can never always be, quite phenomenal.) What good does it do?  These and similar questions have been posed many times before by people who considered them very carefully – both the questions and the possible deeply variegated responses.  Just now, I can only speak about the artists whose work has so moved through my soul, and made my life all the larger.  And so Happy Birthday, Mr. Dickens.  I send you much love from the part of Cambridge where, this year, with a great deal of joy, I am living: the place where, for all I know, some other dreamer on some blue-lidded night lies half-asleep between those worlds and this one, your worlds and these: for just a step, surely, then another one, and there we are once again: ourselves dreaming the unraveling story, against a quite sudden backdrop of yet another vast, unraveling night.

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Thomas Glave is a 2012 Visiting Fellow at Cambridge University.  His books include The Torturer’s Wife (City Lights Books),  Whose Song? and Other Stories (City Lights Books), the essay collection Words to Our Now: Imagination and Dissent (winner of a 2005 Lambda Literary Award), and the anthology Our Caribbean: A Gathering of Lesbian and Gay Writing from the Antilles (winner of a 2008 Lambda Literary Award).  He has work forthcoming in Kingston Noir (Akashic Books, 2012), Love, Christopher Street (Vantage Point, 2012), Who’s Yer Daddy? Gay Writers Celebrate Their Mentors and Forerunners (Wisconsin, 2012), The Kenyon Review, and Callaloo.  Other writing has recently appeared in The Huffington Post/UK.

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