So, La Bella and I are plowing through the BBC’s new TV adaptation of Little Dorrit. It’s fascinating, in large part because: 1) the acting is so strong that the acting styles can veer from naturalistic (Arthur Clennam) to melodramatic (Tattycoram) to ridiculously hyperbolic (Mr. Flintwinch) to broadly comic (Pet Gowan), without flying apart tonally; 2 the direction is so consciously unstagy and knowingly (maybe too knowingly) cinematic, with its emphasis on odd angles and constant camera movement, rapid focal shifts that emphasize the background and then the foreground and back again, close-ups so tight and colors so over-vibrant that they disorient you, and compositions that are almost abstract before they resolve back into narrative purpose; and 3) an overall writing vision that’s so strong that the BBC calls this an adaptation by Andrew Davies (the screenwriter) rather than its three directors—this, even though it’s so consciously directed to be modern and against the mechanics of the theater.
(#3, of course, is common for British TV series, and maybe for American shows, too. Dennis Potter is known as a TV auteur even though he was mostly a writer, but the same’s true of Joss Whedon and David Simon. Why is this the case?)
Anyway, watching Little Dorrit has got me thinking about “Humiliation,” the parlor game invented by David Lodge in his hilarious novel Changing Places. Back in 2005, I described the rules in terms of my relationship to Jane Austen:
It goes like this: each person in the group names a book that s/he hasn’t read, but which s/he assumes everyone else in the group has read, and scores a point for every person who answers in the affirmative. At the end of several rounds, the person with the most points wins. Basically, you win by humiliating yourself intellectually. It’s funnier than it sounds—a professor at the party loses his chance for tenure by proclaiming loudly and almost proudly that he’s never read Hamlet.
I’ve since rectified the Jane Austen but I’ve got an even-bigger gap to admit to. I have a B.A. in English from a well-regarded liberal arts college. I read a book a week, maybe more. I have cultured friends who lead me to invigorating literature all the time. I read millions of words every year.
And not one of them was written by Charles Dickens.
And, yes, that means I’ve never read A Christmas Carol.
I’m tired of this lapse. Hell, I’m tired of a lot of my lapses, but I can do something about this one. So, your job, dear friends, is to direct me. In the comments box, please describe—in 200 words or less—the Dickens novel with which I should begin my education, and why. What should I expect? (A friend has suggested that, because I love Armistead Maupin’s Tales of the City series, I’ll find lots to admire in Dickens’s vivid characters who are drawn through dialogue, interlocking stories winding themselves around a geographically small city, and fortunate, freakish coincidences.) What shouldn’t I expect? Let me know; help the cause. I thank you in advance.