I suppose in the end it makes sense to have some idea of a book as a whole, good or bad, worth reading or not, morally edifying or blighting, but in fact I do not read books as wholes, but rather passages, and sentences, and sometimes even individual words. As I have improved as a reader I have retreated further from the whole; as I continue to improve, I will move past the passage, and then the sentence, and perhaps even the word, reading nothing but a series of letters, each deeply meaningful, until I am adept enough to read nothing but the nirvana of the blank space between and among the letters. Every day, then, after an hour or so of clear thought, careful writing, and judicious editing, I will produce the perfect blog post about what I read, one that is completely blank.
I have not yet achieved that level of sophistication. What I am trying to say is that I have read 14 ½ Charles Dickens novels because of, as an example, this:
From these, in a narrow and a dirty street devoted to such callings, Mr Wegg selects one dark shop-window with a tallow candle dimly burning in it, surrounded by a muddle of objects vaguely resembling pieces of leather and dry stick, but among which nothing is resolvable into anything distinct, save the candle itself in its old tin candlestick, and two preserved frogs fighting a small-sword duel. (I.7)
Allow me to savor the image: “two preserved frogs fighting a small-sword duel.” Readers familiar with Our Mutual Friend will know that I have just accompanied the one-legged Simon Wegg into the anatomy shop of Mr. Venus. The latter is presumably the creator of the frog tableau; he is a taxidermist and assembler of skeletons by trade: “’You may go and buy a skeleton at the West End if you like, and pay the West End price, but it’ll be my putting together.’” Again, I will pause – “and pay the West End price.” I have been led to believe that there are people in the world who criticize Dickens for wordiness, who wonder why he does not just get on with it. But he is! This, the dueling frogs and proud craftsman, are it, or much of it.
Mr. Venus gives a tour of the shop:
‘My working bench. My young man's bench. A Wice. Tools. Bones, warious. Skulls, warious. Preserved Indian baby. African ditto. Bottled preparations, warious. Everything within reach of your hand, in good preservation. The mouldy ones a-top. What's in those hampers over them again, I don't quite remember. Say, human warious. Cats. Articulated English baby. Dogs. Ducks. Glass eyes, warious. Mummied bird. Dried cuticle, warious. Oh, dear me! That's the general panoramic view.’
I have to suppress the kerfuffle over teeth (“There was two in the coffee-pot at breakfast time. Molars.”) in order to marvel at the delights of this passage alone, “Say, human warious,” for example, or “Ducks.” The penultimate exclamation is the result of something, the bird mummy or cuticles, reminding Mr. Venus of his romantic troubles, which will work out fine; do not lose any sleep over the love life of Mr. Venus the skeleton articulator.
The frogs, by the way – this is a tip for aspiring fiction writers – could be found on Dickens’s own writing desk, not as taxidermy but in the form of a French bronze sculpture (and they were toads, not frogs). So the tip is to surround yourself with useless knickknacks which you will someday insert into your story as a telling detail.
All of this is just one little slice of one little chapter of Our Mutual Friend. Dickens is so generous.