Tuesday, January 13, 2009

The Book in Hand – The Man Who Invented Christmas

As I wrote in a recent posting, I’ve been reading a lot of books, particularly the works of Charles Dickens. Yes, A Christmas Carol draws me to the shelf each December, and I do re-read the novella each Christmastide. This year, a series of circumstances led me to explore Dickens’ other Christmas writings, and to consider their lingering effect on our lives.
It was my privilege to prepare program notes for CONCORA’s recent holiday concert, Christmas in New England, a delightful program of Christmas music by New England composers and authors. As I began sketching out the notes, I wondered about how our “New England Christmas” traditions got started, and I started reading and learning.
In an interesting coincidence, the very day after I drafted the CONCORA notes, there appeared in our newspaper a review of a new book: The Man Who Invented Christmas: How Charles Dickens’s A Christmas Carol Rescued His Career and Revived Our Holiday Spirits, by Les Standiford (Crown, © 2008). I immediately wrote to Santa to request the book for Christmas, and it was under the tree on Christmas morning.
It was an interesting book, though insubstantial and ultimately unsatisfying. I was hoping for a big book, a scholarly exploration; what I got was a smallish book (240 pages, but in large-point type and printed on small paper, just 5.5 x 7 inches) that gave a pleasant overview of the topic but not much more. No illustrations? No index? It was like getting Wonder bread when I really wanted whole wheat.
Worst of all, I found several factual errors in the book which called into question the veracity of all the information in the book, and worse, which made me doubt the knowledge, skill, and reliability of the author. Most of these errors were in the author’s summary of the characters and actions of A Christmas Carol, including misattributions of dialog and mistakes about the locations in which specific actions took place. In my mind, it is inexcusable that a study about a book has errors about that book.
Inexplicable errors like these seem to occur in new books with increasing frequency. One of the books that I gave my husband for Christmas (How the States Got Their Shapes, by Mark Stein) contains errors in dates, place names, and maps. And these are in a book which is entirely about places, dates, and maps!
Where are the editors and fact checkers? Perhaps the problem lies in the fact that so many books are published each year. It's too bad that publishers and book sellers seem to strive for quantity rather than quality.
It seems that some books, like The Man Who Invented Christmas, are “manufactured” in order to generate profits rather than to communicate important ideas in new and interesting ways. The topic of Dickens' “inventing” Christmas has been covered in earlier publications, including Christmas and Charles Dickens, a 355-page study by David Parker (AMS Press, 2005); Dickens’ Christmas, by John Hudson (Sutton, 1997), and Dickens’ Christmas: A Victorian Celebration by Simon Callow (Abrams, 2003). And how about this intriguing title: A Midnight Carol, A Novel of How Charles Dickens Saved Christmas, by Patricia K. Davis (Macmillan, 2000) – this book is not even included in Standiford’s bibliography.
So, why do we need this new, light-weight (in more ways than one) book on Dickens and Christmas, which just happened to be released right before Chri$tma$? I wish that I had not purchased it so quickly: I assumed (wrongly) that it added to previous knowledge in some way, or summarized existing information with a new and important analysis or perspective. It didn't, and I wish now that I had just borrowed library copies of earlier works on the same topic.
Despite these criticisms, the book is interesting and worth a look. You can find it at your public library or purchase them.

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