From a choice of workshops I selected the Close Reading Group. The idea is, rather than reading a book before hand and discussing it generally, a group meets and reads a chapter aloud together, pausing along the way to discuss interesting points. It felt rather like a university tutorial, but it was sensitively facilitated to encourage everyone to participate. Readers were encouraged to focus on the chapter in hand rather than the book as a whole or contextualise with what many readers knew of the writer's background. The reading in question was the first chapter of Dombey and Son. Mrs Dombey has finally produced a male heir, much to her husband's delight:
'The earth was made for Dombey and Son to trade in, and the sun and moon were made to give them light. Rivers and seas were formed to float their ships; rainbows gave them promise of fair weather; winds blew for or against their enterprises; stars and planets circled in their orbits , to preserve inviolate a system of which they were the centre. Common abbreviations took new meanings in his eyes, and had sole reference to them: A.D. had no concern with anno Domini, but stood for anno Dombei- and Son.'This isn't my favourite Dickens novel, but this first chapter does encapsulate so much of what makes him a great writer: humour and pathos, social commentary and characters that leap from the page. Even if the novel is a hefty nine hundred pages, he does manage to cram so much into this chapter and set up the story effectively.
The highlight of the day was Claire Tomalin, Dickens biographer. Perhaps it was Tomalin's evident enthusiasm for her subject, her eloquence and knowledge, or perhaps it was just that Dickens is such an interesting subject. Either way, she had the audience's full attention - it was certainly the quickest hour of the day. I do admire a writer who can speak and engage equally well with those who know their work and those who don't. Some writers seem so keen not to give the plot away, that they seem to say little at all of any import. Certainly Tomalin left me wiser and wanting more.
It was only this last weekend that I caught up with my audiobook subscription. Since I only tend to listen to audiobooks in bed, they send me to sleep very quickly. After four attempts at Bleak House, I've definitely missed more than I've heard. For a change, I thought I'd give Tomalin's biography of Dickens a go. I've only reached chapter three, and my enthusiasm may be premature, but so far I'm captivated. He seems such a remarkable man, and I'm marvelling at his productivity, his long walks and philanthropic work. I wonder too at the impact of his childhood and family poverty on his adult life. I'm imagining the sensitive eleven year old boy, finishing a day at the blacking factory to rejoin his family in Marshalsea debtors' prison.
I find so much to admire in Dickens, in both his gift as a story teller and for his social conscience. It's true, I may revise my ideas somewhat when I know more about his relationship with his wife Catherine, but for now I'm enthralled.
It's this capacity of books to enthuse and inspire that makes me such a bibliophile. I think I may have found my remedy for the November blues.