February 7 just happens to be the birthday of two extraordinary figures in English language literature: Charles Dickens, who is celebrating his 200th this year, and Laura Ingalls Wilder, celebrating her 145th. Happy birthday to you both!
I’m not going to write a conventional biographical post on these two—you can find that easily enough on your own. Nor do I think it necessary to post a list of their works—also easily obtainable elsewhere. What I’m offering today are a few words on part of why I think they are important figures now in 2012. I hope that you’ll post your thoughts as well—your thoughts on their place in your lives as a reader, your favorite book by them—whatever you like.
First, Mr. Dickens. My husband just finished reading Stephen Pinker’s new book The Better Angels of Our Nature (yes, a Christmas gift from me), which discusses why he thinks that on the whole, civilization has progressed and violence in society has declined over the last couple of thousand years. You may or may not agree with him (I haven’t read the book yet, but it sounds fascinating) but he made one point that struck my DH strongly, and that he passed on to me: that one of the reasons western society as a whole has become a gentler place over the last two hundred years is the rise of novel reading since the 18th century—that reading novels (which became more affordable and obtainable via libraries in the 19th century) forced people to temporarily inhabit the skins of other people and live through their joys and sorrows, and thus develop empathy. Poor people weren’t just lazy or somehow inherently bad—they were human beings too, with aspirations and dreams, and deserved respect and help rather than scorn. If there was ever a champion of the poor in literature, that person has to be Charles Dickens. Thank you, sir, for helping to civilize the world. Who said that books don’t possess power?
And now, Mrs. Ingalls. Okay, so I’m an unashamed LIW fan and have been since fourth grade—let’s just get that said up front. I still re-read her Little House books every few years; interestingly, the book I had the hardest time with and liked the least back then (The Long Winter) is now my favorite. I have read biographies of her and of Rose Wilder Lane and understand that her books are indeed, as she said, the truth, but not all of it. But I think she’s part of the origin of my history geekishness and my fascination with the details of how people once lived; she’s also a symbol, to me, of the sweep of history. Think about this: she was born two years after the end of the Civil War, and died just months before the first satellite went into earth orbit. In between that she saw the fall of horse power and sail and the preeminence of the engine on sea and land; she saw the telephone, the motorcar, radio, and television, the birth of medicine as a science, and the emancipation for women. What a life to have lived! Thank you, Mrs. Ingalls, for bringing part of that history to life for me.
P.S. In a few weeks we'll learn more about what teens read in the 19th century. Stay tuned!