Friday, December 14, 2012

Bits o' Dickens

With the very best intentions, people will bring things by the desk just to show me.  I like that idea.  Not everything, you know, has to be a transaction.  I've seen a vintage OZ book with a John R. Neal signature, a family Bible with, amazingly, eight generations recorded in it, all sorts.  Knowing my love of Dickens, a coworker the other day brought by a new board-book, "a BabyLit book," called A Christmas Carol: A Colors Primer, by Jennifer Adams, with "Art by Alison Oliver."  I did not love it.

Let me just say that while I absolutely approve of board-books as a category of thing, I do rather think that making them of anything other than alphabets and rhymes is not just silly but honestly rather pointless.  I have friends, young parents, who've insisted with me that their babies have favorite "books" like this, but I can't help but think that this is not unlike the people I know who insist that their cats have a favorite radio station.  I'll take your word for it.  May well be true.  How would we know? (Maybe that board-book tastes better when gummed.)

The point being that something like this "colors primer" based on the Carol has no more to do with Dickens novel than a "classic" Coke advertisement of Santa tells the story of A Visit from St. Nicholas, let alone The Nativity.   That's what I think this board-book actually is; part of a campaign, but nothing much to do with Dickens.  Think of, say, a coffee mug. (I've searched the Internet a bit, and discovered the artist's website, is called appropriately enough, "Pure Sugar."  'nough said.) 

I don't mean to sound so pissy about this harmless little thing, or even the whole "BabyLit" marketing concept, of which this is but one title among many.  The idea of familiarizing even quite young children with literature and art beyond their years is time-honored and admirable.  No idea if it has ever been shown to do anything like what's implied, but I doubt it's ever done much harm, for that matter.  (Remember "Baby Mozart" and "Baby Einstein"?  Guess that's still around after-all as well.  Who knew?)

There is however a not altogether wholesome reduction from actual literature to illustrated nonsense here.  "A Colors Primer"?  Yes, brown boots feature, as I'm sure you'll remember, nearly as significantly in Dickens' Carol as that famous pink dress.  (Not to worry, I don't remember either either.)

This new book has a context for me, in some old books I recently had from a friend.

My friend's mother is sorting through someone else's old books. This is a job most often undertaken by an adult child for a parent or some other relation of an earlier generation, either because of one last move or because that older person has moved on. Now and then, as was the case here, this work is the last act of a long friendship. Despite sorting through people's old books every day for my job as a buyer, I can't say I envy having that first crack at most people's private libraries. I should think there might be some emotion attached to sorting such books, and not all of it necessarily fond.  There is also the unhappy reality of most "house calls," that there will be less than meets the eye. (That's what we call them in the trade, when the dealer is invited to go out and make a bid rather than waiting for the books to be brought in.)  I made more than a few house calls, back in the day. Bought some good books. Never a happy day doing it though.

My friend's mom, with a keen eye and real kindness, spotted a few things she thought I might like personally and sent them along. Bless her. Here then the remains of some old Dickens, three books worth, though truth be told only one of the three is actually by the great man himself -- a busted Pickwick, about which, more anon.

The two books that might just have been said to still be books, were interesting to me for their unfamiliar, and quite pretty illustrations.  Their only other interest now would be as examples of the greater expectations, so to say, of an earlier age. The first is Ten Girls from Dickens, by Kate Dickindon Sweetser, author likewise of Ten Boys from Dickens. The other is Dickens' Stories About Children, done up by one Elizabeth Lodor Merchant. (Please note the musicality, almost Dickensian, of either lady's three-octave moniker.)  Both books are modelled I should think on Lamb's Tales from Shakespeare; simplified stories from the novels, focusing on the most familiar children characters.  Call them introductory Dickens; both with charming "new" illustrations, from 1905 and 1929 respectively, and both bowdlerized but still recognizably Dickens' stories.

Normally I might have spent some time researching the illustrators to write about here, but as fine as these pictures are, that's not really the issue at hand.  I reproduce these two different pictures of Little Nell and her grandfather on the road to illustrate how harmless their journey has been made to look.  See Nell's rather smart bonnet in each?  Their clean clothes?  The friendly countryside?

These are books meant for very young readers, not so young as the wee people meant for board-books, but not of an age to be made aware of tragedy.  So, here we have just the story of a brave little girl, who takes care of her grandfather, not a dark fable of debt, homelessness, madness, the threat of rape and or death. I can see no objection to such a simplification, can you?

The idea at least of these earlier books would seem to have been to not just familiarize a kid with these characters, but to introduce them, in smaller doses to Dickens, which means Dickens prose, and that happens in both of these old books, more or less.

Did then anyone who owned these books go on to read, say, that busted, nearly chapless Pickwick Papers , it's front cover and last chapters gone?  No telling.  Probably, as it's fallen apart.  I won't be able to read any of these really, even if I wanted to.  There's not enough of them left as books.  But then my friends, my coworker and her dear mother, thought I might like to look at them anyway. Quite right.  I'd never seen these illustrations.  (In fact, I've saved them from the broken books and discarded the rest.  Don't be shocked.)

Still begs the question of making Dickens or anything else over for kids.  I don't have an answer for that.  No idea, really.  Does seem something people will keep doing though, doesn't it?  If I had to guess, I'd bet more readers actually have picked up Pickwick, or Copperfield and looked at the pictures before trying the text and then someday after, doing that, than were ever persuaded by  any ersatz Scrooge or scrubbed up Little Nell, no?  Tell me I'm wrong.

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