Thursday, December 25, 2008

Charles Dickens — The Man Who Reinvented Christmas (essay by Michael Pastore)

A Christmas Carol book cover, Zorba Press Edition

Charles Dickens —
The Man Who Re-Invented Christmas

(c) by Michael Pastore

It is a fair, even-handed, noble adjustment of things, that while there is infection in disease and sorrow, there is nothing in the world so irresistibly contagious as laughter and good humor.
— C.D., A Christmas Carol (1843)

In the year 1812 (on February 7th), Charles John Huffam Dickens was born into a world not so very different from our own. War raged around the world: in that year the U.S. declared war against Britain; and Napoleon would march an army of 550,000 into Russia then limp back to Paris six months later with merely 20,000 men. In 1812, too, the arts were flourishing. Beethoven completed his 7th and 8th symphonies; Goethe finished his remarkable novel Wilhelm Meister’s Apprenticeship; the Grimm brothers first gave us their now-famous fairy tales. And Lord Byron brought “Byronic unhappiness” into our lexicon when he published the first parts of his poem Childe Harold, about a man so bored and disgusted with English society that he tries to flee himself by roaming the European world.

What connects us most to the era of Mr. Dickens is that throughout those hard Victorian times his world was shocked by an unprecedented invasion of technology and rapid change. During 1782 to 1812 — in the 30 years before Dickens’s birth — England was pummeled by scores of inventions that transformed daily life: the steam engine, the oil burner, the threshing machine, the steam-powered rotary motor (which powered cotton-spinning factories), the nail-making machine, the flax machine the cotton gin, the preserving jar for foods, the first horse-drawn railroad, lithography, electricity from a cell, muskets with interchangeable parts, the submarine, iron trolley tracks, the steamboat, street lighting by gas, the isolation of morphine, and rockets introduced as military weapons. And perhaps something that might have better been left undiscovered: techniques for canning food.

The thirty years that followed (1813-1843), during Dickens’s growth to manhood, were no less inventive. Here the world acquires the steam locomotive, roads made from crushed stone, the kaleidoscope, the stethoscope, new chemical elements, the flat-bed cylinder press, electromagnetism, thermoelectricity, sound reproduction, iron railroad bridges, waterproof fabric, Portland cement, the galvanometer, Ohm’s Law, photography, the typewriter, matches, the telegraph, the reaping machine, the bicycle, rubber, hypnosis, ether for anesthesia, and scientific proof that the sperm is essential to fertilization.

Paradise, though not yet lost, grew more difficult to find, as the rural life was yielding to the burgeoning urban existence. Wisps of resistance to this new mechanized culture began in 1811,, when the Luddites in Northern England rebelled by destroying the new machines which whirled their jobs away. Resistance was futile. For better and for worse, the English world welcomed this Industrial Revolution which so much influenced Dickens’s life and literary work.

The life of Dickens! A dickens of a life! He enjoyed, we believe, a merry childhood, and like the young Goethe, one of Dickens’s favorite games was inventing dramas in a little puppet theater. But at age 12 (in 1824) his idyll was disrupted: his debt-crushed father and his entire family were locked into a London prison, and poor Charles was sent to work for six months in a factory.

Dare I say “fortunately,” a law passed in 1819 ordered that the maximum working day for juveniles in England could be no longer than 12 hours. Nevertheless, the factory-work experience traumatized Charles, and initiated his lifelong commitment to children and to the poor.

Released from slavery, young Dickens soon learned stenography, then worked as a reporter, then relished the blaze of literary fame that greeted his first two books Sketches By Boz (1836), and Pickwick Papers (1836-1837). Most of his novels initially appeared in installments in periodicals: the most affordable — and suspenseful — method for reaching the average working-class reader. Dickens wrote a number of Christmas fables, including A Christmas Carol (1843), The Chimes (1844), The Cricket on the Hearth (1845), (1846), The Battle of LifeThe Haunted Man and the Ghost’s Bargain (1848). His major works include: Oliver Twist (1837-38), Nicholas Nickleby (1838-39), (1840-41), The Old Curiosity ShopBarnaby Rudge (1841), American Notes for General Circulation (1842), Martin Chuzzlewit (1843-44), Pictures from Italy (1844), Dombey and Son (1846-48), David Copperfield (1849-50, his own favorite novel), Bleak House (1852-53), Hard Times (1854), Little Dorrit (1855-57), A Tale of Two Cities (1859), (1860), The Uncommercial TravelerGreat Expectations (1860-61), Our Mutual Friend (1864-65), and the unfinished The Mystery of Edwin Drood (1870).

With each wonderful book his fame and fortune blossomed. The writer flourished, but the man behind the books lived a full but not always so happy life. Unlucky in young love, he was rejected by Maria Beadnell; and when twenty years later she agreed to a secret meeting, the famous author’s great expectations were dashed as he found her uninteresting and overplump. (The sobering reunion is described in Little Dorritt, under the guise of Arthur Clennam’s encounter with Flora.) In 1836 Dickens married Catherine Hogarth, who would mother his ten children. One year later his 17-year-old sister-in-law, Mary Hogarth, died suddenly, and Dickens — who may have loved and desired her — grew hysterical with grief. By 1856 Dickens was prosperous enough to buy his dream house in the country. But two years later his wife left him, and scandal tweaked England’s ears when his sister-in-law Georgina remained in the household to take care of the kids. Gossip-critics tell that Dickens’s affair with a much younger actress, Ellen Ternan, satisfied neither her nor him.

Yet Dickens the writer never ceased to fill the world with laughter and good cheer. For Dickens had the mind that Baudelaire envied when he wrote: “Genius is childhood recaptured at will.” He not only retained his childlike genius, but these powers were focused and intensified because he used them for a higher purpose: to fight for the salvation of the children and the poor. In all his works, his humor and his fictional personalities remain with us. Why? His children characters come burdened with the troubles of adults; his adult protagonists are blessed with the exuberance of children. The themes blazing through his dozen dazzling novels, the whole of his humane philosophy, are all epitomized in the fabulous story A Christmas Carol.

Dickens composed A Christmas Carol in 1843, between mid-October and the end of November, in a mere six weeks. Unlike his serialized novels, he wrote this story all at once. The process moved him deeply: Dickens could not rest while he wrote this tale. In a letter to a friend he said that while writing the story he “wept and laughed, and wept again, and excited himself in a most extraordinary manner in the composition; and thinking whereof he walked about the black streets of London fifteen and twenty miles many a night when all the sober folks had gone to bed.”

This classic Christmas story starts with Ebenezer Scrooge, a mean wretch, who feels no compassion for other people, and holds no interests in life except one: to accumulate more wealth.

Listen as the Ghost of Christmas Present heaps a sorrowful warning on the troubled head of Ebenezer Scrooge.

From the foldings of its robe, it brought two children; wretched, abject, frightful, hideous, miserable. They knelt down at its feet, and clung upon the outside of its garment.

“Oh, Man! look here. Look, look, down here!” exclaimed the Ghost.

They were a boy and 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 the freshest tints, a stale and shriveled 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 that writing be erased.”

Chaplin in The Gold Rush
It’s hard to tell if concern for others motivates our late-blooming hero, or if it’s fear which turns the trick. Scrooge worries about these immanent ignominies: his own solitary death, his neglected grave, his wasted life, and his eternal prospects — ala his colleague Marley — of wandering the Earth as a ghastly spirit, alone, tormented, with no opportunity to be relieved, remembered, or redeemed. At the climax of the story, filled with dread, hovering above the headstone he knows will be his own, Scrooge cries out to the unholy Ghost:

“Before I draw nearer to that stone to which you point,” said Scrooge, “answer me one question. Are these the shadows of the things that Will be, or are they shadows of things that May be, only?”

Scrooge transformed himself: Can we? ... The poor and the needy are still with us, all around us, helplessly sinking deeper into the economic mire. Dickens’s answer is remarkable. And Scrooge’s question remains the burning question of our burning times.


Michael Pastore is the Editorial Director of Epublishers Weekly, and the the author of more than a dozen books of fiction and non-fiction, including the forthcoming The Tao of Information: How to Simplify Your Life, Keep up with Technology, and Harvest the Internet’s Essential Facts and Ideas in 30 Minutes a Day. (Zorba Press, Spring 2009). Pastore has recently edited a new paperback edition of A Christmas Carol — along with Dickens's other Christmas stories (Click here to learn more).

This essay is copyrighted. You may reprint it on your blog or website, if you give us the credit we deserve: add the tag, "From Epublishers Weekly."
To reprint this essay in a print publication, or in other electronic sources, contact us by email. Thanks. -- MP

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Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Distracted &mdash by Maggie Jackson (Book Review)

Distracted by Maggie Jackson book cover

The Erosion of Attention and the Coming Dark Age
By Maggie Jackson
Hardcover, 327 pages, $ 25.95
Published by Prometheus Books, 2008

Is our planet Earth plummeting into another Dark Age, a mire of disintegration and self-destruction, lifeless and loveless, where not a spark of defiance fires the human soul, where no children laugh, no birds sing, and no swift shoes are flung at lamely-ducking presidents?

One expects this sensational warning in modern films. But when alarms are sounded from beyond Hollywood — from some our best and most sincere minds — it is time to face the problem and closely pay attention. Jane Jacobs (Dark Age Ahead), Jared Diamond (Collapse), Martin Rees (Our Final Hour), Charlene Spretnak (The Resurgence of the Real), and Albert Gore (An Inconvenient Truth) have all written non-fiction works warning us about unpleasant things in our possible or probable future. Distracted, by Maggie Jackson, is an important contribution to this growing genre. With clarity and compassion, Jackson explores the dangers of our hi-tech lifestyle, describing how and why our world is darkening, and providing some illuminating hints about what we might do to reverse the dangerous trends.

Distracted by Maggie Jackson book cover
A much-quoted bumper-sticker in our town (popular in the pre-Obama era) reminds us:

“If you’re not outraged, you’re not paying attention.”

Attention is the key, says Jackson: a lack of attention (distraction) is the essence of our problems, and our hope for the future depends on cultivating “a renaissance of attention.” Jackson explains psychologist Michael Posner’s a definition that divides attention into three “networks”: orienting, alerting, and the executive.

Jackson travels around the U.S.A. to observe people and to talk with researchers connected to her theme. All the while, she quotes many useful literary sources, old and new, including the greatly misunderstood play by Capek (R.U.R.); the eerily prescient science fiction story by E. M. Forster (The Machine Stops); and Mary Shelley's saga of a dysfunctional monster (Frankenstein). I have been studying this notion (ABC: Attention, Being fully in the present, Concentration) for more than a year, and I thought that I could not be surprised with information new to me. Happily, I was very wrong. Jackson introduced me to the French science fiction author, Albert Robida (1848 to 1926). Robida wrote a short story about the future (the year 1965); interviewed about his predictions, he said (and he is talking about us):

Modern Times film: stuck in the gears

“Their every day will be caught in the wheels of a mechanized society to the point where I wonder how they will find the time to enjoy the most simple pleasures we had at our disposal: silence, calm, solitude. Having never known them, they shall not be able to miss them. As for me, I do — and I pity them.”

Robida wondered then, and — more than a century later — I am wondering now. But for pity there is no time. Quickly we must turn down the noise, simplify our lives, learn the art of attention, and cultivate our minds.

—Michael Pastore

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Tuesday, December 09, 2008

Walt the Plumber, or: Is Writing Books For Famous Writers Only?

Walt the Plumber

"The monstrosity of her pretensions touches the highest point of the ludicrous."

Those words are from George Gissing, describing one of the comic characters created by Charles Dickens. Gissing's barb defines the essence of today's publishing crisis: anybody and everybody believes that they can — without skill, practice, concentration, devotion, sacrifice and years of sustained efforts — write a worthwhile book.

Those of us who work at the writer's trade do not commit the opposite folly of believing that we could pick up a violin, for the first time, and play it with the unabashed virtuosity of Perlman, Paganini and Sarasate.

This problem is wittily discussed in a recent New York Times essay by Timothy Egan. (Here is the link to the essay: it is free to read, however you will need to register with the NY Times before you are permitted to read it:

Egan's essay (called =Typing Without A Clue=) begins this way:

The unlicensed pipe fitter known as Joe the Plumber is out with a book this month, just as the last seconds on his 15 minutes are slipping away. I have a question for Joe: Do you want me to fix your leaky toilet?

I didn’t think so. And I don’t want you writing books. Not when too many good novelists remain unpublished. Not when too many extraordinary histories remain unread. Not when too many riveting memoirs are kicked back at authors after 10 years of toil. Not when voices in Iran, North Korea or China struggle to get past a censor’s gate.

Joe, a k a Samuel J. Wurzelbacher, was no good as a citizen, having failed to pay his full share of taxes, no good as a plumber, not being fully credentialed, and not even any good as a faux American icon. Who could forget poor John McCain at his most befuddled, calling out for his working-class surrogate on a day when Joe stiffed him.

With a résumé full of failure, he now thinks he can join the profession of Mark Twain, George Orwell and Joan Didion.

Point well made. And the remainder of the essay sweetly captures the frustrations of every genuine author struggling to survive.

There is, however, another side of the argument, perhaps best summarized by Karl Popper, who wrote:

"If you want a democracy, you need to put up with some of the chaos."

Many of us cannot imagine how Plumber Joe can have a significant story to tell, or tell it in a captivating manner. At the same time, we do not want to bolt the door to every unknown and unpublished literary voice.

Consider the plight of some women and men, initially ignored or scorned, and now recognized among our finest writers:
  • In 1855, Walt Whitman set type at his friend's printing company, then paid for the printing of the first edition of his unappreciated masterpiece Leaves of Grass.
  • With the help of his wife,William Blake — considered by his contemporaries to be a madman, and now regarded as one of the world's great poets — handcrafted all his books in his own workshop at home.
  • Some other once-ignored now-famous writers who have self-published include Benjamin Franklin; Henry David Thoreau; Mark Twain (The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn); Carl Sandburg; Rudyard Kipling; William Strunk, Jr. (The Elements of Style); D.H. Lawrence; Gertrude Stein; Beatrix Potter; the Bronte Sisters; John Galsworthy; Edgar Allan Poe; Robert Browning; George Bernard Shaw; Samuel Butler; William E.B. Du Bois; James Joyce (Ulysses); Anais Nin; and Virginia Woolf.
Publishing in the past was motivated by a balance between culture and commerce. Publishers wanted to make enough money to survive, but money was not the only thing, nor was it the most important thing. Once, the job of the publisher was to discover the finest books, and offer these books to the reading public.

Fortunately, there are a number of contemporary publishers who have stayed true to their calling and professional integrity. But many — and the cynic might say "most" — have not.

In theory, there is a system in place to separate the wheat from the chaff, the writers from the plumbers. The great gates to literary stardom are guarded by a hardhearted breed of businesspersons known as "literary agents." Admirably, a group of these agents have joined together, and formed an organization called the AAR (The Association of Authors Representatives) to protect authors from exploitation from members of their species who have lower ethical standards.

Years ago, inflated with youthful hopes and nearsighted optimism, I mailed a letter describing my novel to an agent in the publishing capital of the world. To my shock, within 6 months I received a reply from this agent. The reply — which of course had been mailed to me in my Self-Addressed Stamped Envelope — was nothing more than a glossy flyer promoting his new book. Though I laugh at this incident now, at the time I was mad as hell. It is petty to mention names, however I must say that I was very gratified this week to discover that the very book which had once been so nefariously promoted, is now available for free online, via Google Books.

Agent Book

But let us return to our original dilemma. Given the choice between two universes, one realm that published big-name authors only, and another world that published a wide variety of authors — great, awful, good, bad, and everything in between — I will choose the second world every time. That world of equal opportunity — where everyone has the chance to be published — is vastly more chaotic, more enlightening, and more fun.

— Michael Pastore

Thanks for the ping, to one of favorite blogs, Arts Journal:

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Tuesday, December 02, 2008

Frengly Means Online Translation For 25 Languages

Image from Frengly.comEvery day brings us a flood of new releases and updates of downloadable software and "Web 2.0" software, which lets you do things on the web: manage your tasks, edit a photo, create and share a docoment, and on and on. ... Many of these offerings are free; and many of them (whether free or not) immediately fall into the category that one Internet author has called "cool but useless".

Yet, as Spinoza reminded us ("All excellent things are both difficult and rare.") a small number of these tools are not only cool and fun to use, but incredibly useful. The latest of these prizes is a website called Frengly, found at

Frengly is an excellent, superbe, ausgezeichnet — and free! — online translator that translates to and from more than 25 languages, including:

  • English
  • French
  • German
  • Spanish
  • Italian
  • Arabic
  • Bulgarian
  • Chinese (both Simplified and Traditional)
  • Croatian
  • Danish
  • Finnish
  • Hindi
  • Greek
  • Korean
  • Norweigan
  • Polish
  • Romanian
  • Dutch
  • Swedish
  • Portuguese
  • Japanese
  • Russian
  • Hebrew
  • Czech
  • Vietnamese
  • Slovakian
In general, whenever you use a machine (or software) to change languages, you might want to check for accuracy before sending your translated message. Here's how I check: after using the website to translate from, say, English to French, I then use the website to translate back from the (just-translated) French, to English.

This avoids embarrassing mistakes like the one I made today, when I tried to tell some French friends: "I hope that you are thriving." ... The website transmogrified that phrase into: "I hope that you are booming."

Quel dommage! ... But I'm sure that I will be forgiven avec un sourire -- with a smile.

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