Tom Nissley’s column A Reader’s Book of Days is adapted from his book of the same name.
Did Dickens invent Christmas? It’s sometimes said he did, recreating the holiday as we know it out of the neglect that had been imposed on it by Puritanism, Utilitarianism, and the Scrooge-like forces of the Industrial Revolution. But Dickens himself would hardly have said he invented the traditions he celebrated: the mission of his Ghost of Christmas Present, after all, is to show the spirit and customs of the holiday are authentic and alive among the people, not just humbug. But A Christmas Carol did appear alongside the arrival in Victorian England of some of the modern traditions of the holiday. It was published in 1843, the same year the first commercial Christmas cards were printed in England, and two years after Prince Albert brought the German custom of the Christmas tree with him to England after his marriage to Queen Victoria.
Christmas was undoubtedly Dickens’s favorite holiday, and he made it a tradition of his own. A Christmas Carol was the first of his five almost-annual Christmas books (he regretted skipping a year in 1847 while working on Dombey and Son; he was “very loath to lose the money,” he said. “And still more so to leave any gap at Christmas firesides which I ought to fill”), and then for eighteen more years he published Christmas editions of his magazines Household Words and All the Year Round. And the popular and exhausting activity that nearly took over the last decades of his career, his public reading of his own works, began with his Christmas stories. For years they remained his favorite texts to perform, whether it was December or not.
One of the Christmas traditions Dickens most wanted to celebrate is one mostly forgotten now: storytelling. The early Christmas numbers of Household Words were imagined as stories told around the fireplace, often ghost stories like A Christmas Carol. It’s an easily forgotten detail that the classic American ghost tale, Henry James’s The Turn of the Screw, is also told around the Christmas hearth. James begins his tale with the mention of a story told among friends “round the fire,” about which we learn little except that it was “gruesome, as, on Christmas Eve in an old house, a strange tale should essentially be,” and that it involved a child. Three nights later that story inspires another, even stranger and more unsettling and involving not one child but two, a ratcheting of dread that gave James the title for his tale.
Telling ghost stories around the hearth might have declined since Dickens’s and James’s times, but it’s striking how important the voice of the storyteller remains in more recent Christmas traditions: Dylan Thomas, nostalgic for the winters of his childhood in “A Child’s Christmas in Wales”; Jean Shepherd, nostalgic for the Red Ryder air rifles of his own childhood in In God We Trust, All Others Pay Cash, later adapted, with Shepherd’s own narration, into the cable TV staple A Christmas Story; and David Sedaris, nostalgic for absolutely nothing from his years as an underpaid elf in the “SantaLand Diaries,” the NPR monologue that launched his storytelling career.
Gather round the fire with these December tales:
Rock Crystal by Adalbert Stifter (1845)
In a Christmas tale of sparkling simplicity, a small brother and sister, heading home from grandmother’s house on Christmas Eve across a mountain pass, find their familiar path made strange and spend a wakeful night in an ice cave on a glacier as the Northern Lights–which the girl takes as a visit from the Holy Child–flood the dark skies above them.
The Chemical History of a Candle by Michael Faraday (1861)
Dickens was not the only Victorian with a taste for public speaking: Faraday created the still-ongoing series of Christmastime scientific lectures for young people at the Royal Institution, the best known of which remains his own, a classic of scientific explanation for readers of any age.
Little Women by Louisa May Alcott (1868)
If you were one of the March girls, you’d read the copies of The Pilgrim’s Progress you found under your pillow on Christmas morning, but we’ll excuse you if you prefer to read about the Marches themselves instead.
Appointment in Samarra by John O’Hara (1934)
Julian English’s three-day spiral to a lonely end, burning every bridge he can in Gibbsville, Pennsylvania, from the day before Christmas to the day after, is inexplicable, inevitable, and compelling, the inexplicability of his self-destruction only adding to his isolation.
“The Birds” by Daphne du Maurier (1952)
Hitchcock transplanted the unsettling idea of mass avian malevolence in du Maurier’s story from the blustery December coast of England to the Technicolor brightness of California, but the original, told with the terse modesty of postwar austerity, still carries a greater horror.
The Catcher in the Rye by J. D. Salinger (1951)
Holden’s not supposed to be back from Pencey Prep for Christmas vacation until Wednesday, but since he’s been kicked out anyway, he figures he might as well head to the city early and take it easy in some inexpensive hotel before going home all rested up and feeling swell.
Instead of a Letter by Diana Athill (1963)
The “twenty years of unhappiness” recounted in Athill’s memoir, after her fiancé wrote to say he was marrying someone else just before being killed in the war, ended on her forty-first birthday with the news she had won the Observer’s Christmas story competition (the same prize that launched Muriel Spark’s career seven years before).
Tape for the Turn of the Year by A. R. Ammons (1965)
The long poem was a form made for Ammons, with its space to wander around, contradict himself, and turn equally to matters quotidian and cosmic, as he does in this lovely experiment that, in a sort of serious joke on Kerouac, he composed on a single piece of adding machine tape from December 1963 to early January 1964.
Chilly Scenes of Winter by Ann Beattie (1976)
Want to extend The Catcher in the Rye’s feeling of unrequited holiday ennui well into your twenties? Spend the days before New Year’s with Charles, impatient, blunt, and love-struck over a married woman whom he kept giving Salinger books until she couldn’t bear it anymore.
The Ghost Writer by Philip Roth (1979)
The brash and eventful fictional life of Nathan Zuckerman, which Roth extended in another eight books, starts quietly in this short novel (one of Roth’s best), with his abashed arrival on a December afternoon at the country retreat of his idol, the reclusive novelist E. I. Lonoff.
The Orchid Thief by Susan Orlean (1998)
Head south with the snowbirds to the humid swamps of Florida as Orlean investigates the December theft of over two hundred orchids from state swampland and becomes fascinated by its strangely charismatic primary perpetrator, John Laroche.
Stalingrad by Antony Beevor (1999)
Or perhaps your December isn’t cold enough. Beevor’s authoritative account of the siege of Stalingrad, the wintry graveyard of Hitler’s plans to conquer Russia, captures the nearly incomprehensible human drama that changed the course of the war at a cost of a million lives.
The Year of Magical Thinking by Joan Didion (2005)
Didion’s year of grief, recorded in this clear-eyed memoir, began with her husband’s sudden death on December 30, 2003, and ended on the last day of 2004, the first day, as she realized to her sorrow, that he hadn’t seen the year before.
Last Day at the Lobster by Stewart O’Nan (2007)
Manny DeLeon will be all right—he has a transfer to a nearby Olive Garden set up—but in his last shift as manager of a Connecticut Red Lobster, shutting down for good with a blizzard on the way, he becomes a sort of saint of the corporate service economy in O’Nan’s modest marvel of a novel.
December by Alexander Kluge and Gerhard Richter (2012)
Two German artists reinvent the calendar book, with Richter’s photographs of snowy, implacable winter and Kluge’s enigmatic anecdotes from Decembers past, drawing from 21,999 b.c. to 2009 a.d. but circling back obsessively to the two empires, Nazi and Soviet, that met at Stalingrad.
As an English professor and unabashed therapy-junkie, I recently made it my business to read every YA novel I could find in which an adolescent protagonist visits a psychotherapist. It surprises me that teens in contemporary Young Adult fictions are still submitting to the rigors of talk therapy. This seems to be passé. According to a myriad of recent articles and books, more Americans — adolescents included — are tossing back pills for depression than trudging to therapists’ offices. In a recent article in The New York Review of Books, Marcia Angell explores the “shift from ‘talk therapy’ to drugs as the dominant mode of treatment” for mental illness. Nevertheless, fictional teenagers are still talking to therapists for pages on end. Having now read a growing pile of novels, I can vouch for the fact that teen protagonists are actually having insights and getting better. In fact, the majority of these novels depict psychotherapy as transformative.
The fictional teens who frequent therapists’ offices range from full-blown “tragics” to Holden Caulfield-esque depressives — tragics being “people who get help because they’ve had something really bad happen to them, like getting cancer, or being abused,” according to Ruby Oliver, the therapized protagonist of E. Lockhart’s The Boyfriend List (2005). Anna, of E.R. Frank’s Wrecked (2007), is definitely a tragic: she killed her brother’s girlfriend in a car crash. The accident wasn’t Anna’s fault, but still. Chloe Doe, the eponymous heroine of Suzanne Phillips’ 2007 novel, also has woes. After her stepfather sexually abuses and murders her sister, Chloe runs away from home and takes up prostitution. And then there is Valerie, of Jennifer Brown’s Hate List (2009), whose boyfriend Nick Levil (get it? he’s evil!) grabs a rifle and shoots a few classmates before offing himself. Why didn’t Val see it coming? Luckily for her, Dr. Hieler (a healer!) well, heals her.
I like the un-tragic protagonists; they melt down less flamboyantly than the tragics, but they’re funnier and more soulful. Alice, of Susan Juby’s Alice, I Think (2003), suffers from the “emotional and intellectual handicaps” of home schooling. She sees a counselor she dubs “Death Lord Bob,” so named for his “small goatee” and penchant for black clothes. Alice suspects Death Lord is “riddled with issues,” and, in an effort to boost his self-esteem, becomes a model patient, overcoming her fear of public school. James Sveck of Peter Cameron’s Someday This Pain Will Be Useful To You (2007) is my favorite character (in the one truly exceptional novel I read). A New Yorker, a stickler about language, and a gay high school student with a crush on John (his hip black gay Ivy-League-educated boss), James creates a fake profile on Gent4Gent.com, ensnaring John and ensuring a disastrous end to their friendship.
The therapists in these novels are a motley crew. They come in all colors, ethnicities, and nationalities. Crunchy, Birkenstock-sporting Dr. Z is Black (The Boyfriend List), Dr. Rowena Adler is German (Someday This Pain); Dr. Minerva is Greek (Ned Vizzini’s It’s Kind of a Funny Story, 2006); and Dr. Greenburg is Jewish (Robin Palmer’s Cindy Ella, 2008). Some are motherly: the therapist in Patricia McCormick’s Cut (2000) smells like lavender sachets, while Frances, the freckled therapist in Wrecked, is warm (symbolized by the fact that she wears yellow in the heart of winter). Smart therapists like Dr. Adler and Chloe Doe’s Dr. Dearborn give as good as they get, meeting their teenaged patients’ verbal sallies with equally adept parries. Loser therapist Marla Dawson in Chris Crutcher’s Deadline (2007) gives up on her dying patient, protagonist Ben, lamenting that she’s “out of [her] depth” — and diabolical Dr. Malcolm Roland steals protagonist Hilly’s diary in the hope of passing it off as his own work in Kathe Koja’s Going Under (2006). Mia, in Meg Cabot’s princess series, sees a cowboy therapist named Dr. Knutz. He “certainly lived up to his name,” she tells us, surprised that he is not like the Jewish Jungian psychologists, the Drs. Moscovitz, parents of her best friend Lilly.
Despite all the silliness and melodrama inherent in the YA genre, many of the therapists in these books are depicted as helpful guides to their young patients. In The Boyfriend List, Dr. Z’s suggestion that Ruby make a list of all the boys in her life structures Ruby’s first-person narrative, fracturing chronology, engendering copious footnotes, and spawning new lists such as Ruby’s list of lies. My personal favorite is Ruby’s apology list to Noel, a boy she has treated badly. Composed of six delightful similes — Ruby is sorry “[l]ike a cat who rolled in jam” — the list allows her to make reparation while saving face through humor. As the novel closes, Ruby is able to use the list form Dr. Z has given her to live more creatively. The list, Ruby finally acknowledges, makes her feel “rather well adjusted.” Dr. Z teaches Ruby the value of playfulness, demonstrating that if you rearrange familiar elements, you will gain a new perspective.
While many of these protagonists are initially resistant to therapy, they usually get over it quickly. When we first meet Chloe Doe at the Madeline Parker Institute for Girls, she is giving her therapist, Dr. Dearborn, some serious attitude in the form of her bare breasts. Soon enough, though, she pulls down her shirt and commits to the hard work of self-discovery. Like Dr. Z, Dr. Dearborn reinterprets the world for Chloe. He sees life as a battle: “‘There’s the walk into battle. The battle itself. And the walk away… Sometimes it’s over small stuff. Sometimes it’s life and death,’” he tells her. Accordingly, Chloe envisions therapy as a high stakes struggle and begins to take it seriously, even though she feels like she’s “sitting in a tub of broken glass.” Ultimately, Chloe triumphs over her resistance: “I’m standing at the top of Everest, and I’m light-headed,” she thinks after an especially grueling session. No surprise, then, when Chloe, who overuses figurative language, comes up with the appropriately metaphorical last name of Aimes for herself at the end of the novel. This assures us — however obviously — that she is going to have a future.
James Sveck is also argumentative and hostile to Dr. Adler at the start: “I felt like we were in some contest to see who could unnerve the other first,” he admits. When their verbal pyrotechnics inevitably transform into repartee, however, James is able to use therapy to encounter his despair. In the centerpiece scene, James describes to Dr. Adler Thomas Cole’s series of four allegorical paintings, The Voyage of Life. The paintings, representing the four stages of a man’s life — “Childhood,” “Youth,” “Manhood,” and “Old Age” — were once meaningful to James: when he was thirteen he bought reproductions of them, which he taped to his wall until a schoolmate told him they were “stupid and faggy.” Upon encountering the paintings again on a recent trip to The National Gallery, James realizes that he wants to be the central figure floating toward death in the last painting, Old Age. “I wanted to skip the Manhood boat,” he tells Dr. Adler. “I wanted to die.” James’ use of Cole’s allegory to distance himself from his suicidal thoughts assures us that he will survive his depression and return to the business of living, as indeed he does.
Overall, YA novels involving teen protagonists and their therapists suggest that adolescents are vulnerable and in need of adult intervention. These new teen protagonists are mostly unlike their immediate predecessors from the mid-Twentieth Century, the Holden Caulfields and Harriet the Spys, who saw through the hypocritical fabric of adult society and landed in therapy only as an afterthought to a gripping emotional quest. In Cut, for instance, Callie waits outside her therapist’s locked door like a sad dog, yearning to tell her “everything.” Similarly, Anna, of Wrecked, phones Frances from school for emergency therapy after having a panic attack. These dependent teens are more in the tradition of Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women than Holden and Harriet. Like the March sisters, who sob out their sins to Marmee, the adolescents in these contemporary fictions are represented as being quasi reprobates in need of spiritual, moral, and emotional guidance from the adults in their lives. As such, they follow in a literary historical tradition that didactically represents children and adolescents as dependent on adult wisdom — as opposed to the parallel tradition that portrays adolescents as purveyors of enlightenment to the adult world (think of Anne of Green Gables, who softens and transforms all the adults with whom she comes in contact).
The form of these YA fictions also nods to Louisa May. Just as Alcott offered her readers a novel about young adults structured around the guiding principles of John Bunyan’s spiritual autobiography The Pilgrim’s Progress, these YA novels present their adolescent readers with a new kind of conversion narrative in which the adoption of a psychotherapeutic frame of interpretation is saving. If you only yield to therapy, the tacit argument goes, you will be saved — or, if not saved, at least able to live with your problems. Emerging from the hospital after five days of in-patient therapy, Craig Gilner of It’s Kind of a Funny Story experiences the cathartic shift in his brain for which he has been longing, along with a sense that he “can handle it.”
If it is indeed true that we are experiencing a movement away “from ‘talk therapy’ to drugs as the dominant mode of treatment” for mental illness, then are these YA fictions charming anachronisms? It could be that these novels fascinate me because they are written by authors who are all around my age, born in the 60s and 70s, when psychotherapy was reckoned as an exciting possibility for transformation. My generation is still stubbornly committed to the idea that knowing oneself is a worthwhile pursuit — and these novels, however rife with soap operatic bad luck and sentimentality, champion the idea that self knowledge emerges in dialogue with a trusted other. Although most of them grind out cookie cutter conversion stories, I cannot be hard on these works. Ultimately, they suggest that engaging with someone else, face to face, is transforming — or, at the very least, provides more scope for plot and character development than popping a pill.
Samuel Richardson, Clarissa, Or the History of a Young Lady (1747-8): The difficulty of Richardson’s masterpiece lies almost exclusively in its length: the outsized Penguin Classics edition (9×5.5×3) is 1,500 pages and weights nearly three pounds. I’m not sure it’s the longest novel in English; Richardson’s own Sir Charles Grandison might be longer, and surely the likes of Pynchon, Wallace, and Bolaño have overtaken Clarissa by now—but she is certainly among the longest. Other possible sources of difficulty: the eighteenth-century diction and syntax of Richardson’s masterpiece may seem a little strange or prim at first, as may the social mores of eighteenth-century England, and some readers find the plot insufficient to the length of the book (“if you were to read Richardson for the story,” Samuel Johnson noted, “your impatience would be so much fretted that you would hang yourself.”) Many readers, however, are ultimately drawn in by Richardson’s hero and heroine and the incredible psychological depth with which he draws them (Johnson again: “the first book in the world for the knowledge it displays of the human heart”). The nature of the relationship between the beautiful, virtuous, otherworldly Clarissa Harlowe and her lover/tormenter, the aristocratic libertine Robert Lovelace is entrancing. For emotional and psychological complexity, you will not find a more impressive novel in English.
Laurence Sterne, The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman (1759-1767): In the words of Steve Coogan (playing himself playing Tristram Shandy in Michael Winterbottom’s film version of Sterne’s seemingly unfilmable novel), Tristram Shandy is “a post-modern classic before there was any modernism to be post- about.” Sterne’s 1759 masterpiece is an anachronism—a case of modern, even post-modern, literary sensibility springing up almost two hundred years before either aesthetic became widespread. The difficulty of the book is primarily structural: the novel’s jumbled, non-linear chronology is frequently interrupted by hero/narrator Tristram’s taste for digressions, pre-history, and recounting the doings of minor characters instead of his own life story (he does not get around to narrating his own birth until the third volume of the novel). Tristram patches into his text seemingly unrelated tales, letters, and images as he pleases, and (maddeningly) begins recounting events only to stop short of their denouement (a sort of writerly/readerly coitus interruptus). Some readers just don’t enjoy the novel’s intense consciousness of the chaos of real “life and opinions” and the near-impossibility of representing them accurately in literary form (Samuel Johnson, for one: “Nothing odd will do long. Tristram Shandy did not last.”). Sterne’s artful literary approximation of the associative, digressive messiness that is the real mode of human thinking and life plots, his attention to the difference between real time and narrative time, and his constant attention to the author’s determinative and problematic role in the story he tells, are not for everyone. But for those willing to mount their hobbyhorses and give TS a go, I recommend watching Winterbottom’s film (a movie about making a movie about a book about writing a book) as a warm-up. Also, as one of our readers testified in the introductory post for this series, “Tristram Shandy is laugh aloud funny. I picked it up a few years ago with no prior knowledge–just wanted a novel from the eighteenth century. It’s a real treat. At one point, Sterne gets 8 pp. out of a piping hot chestnut falling into a guy’s breeches. This is lofty stuff.”
Herman Melville, Moby Dick; Or, The Whale (1851): This is one of my favorite books and my choice for the great American novel, but I know others to have found it tough sledding (which, in a Shandian vein, reminds me of Moby Dick’s Nantucket sleigh rides…). The trouble with Moby Dick, as I’ve gathered, is twofold: First, it’s structurally odd, an anatomy more than a novel: a mix of novelistic narration and plot, reverie and essay, a quasi-scientific treatise on whether the whale is a fish (the dreaded ceatology chapter—which I recommend skipping altogether the first time through), dramatic monologues and dialogues, technical descriptions of the craft of whaling, a miscellany of quotations. Second, I have a feeling with Melville (as with his sometime friend and contemporary Nathanial Hawthorne) that the allegory at work in the novel is a little out of my league as a contemporary person (the allegorical habit of mind is rarely evident in contemporary culture—perhaps in Lars von Trier’s Dogville), that I might not have the wherewithal to construe properly: What does the counterpane represent? The whiteness of the whale? The doubloon? Unlike, say, Pilgrim’s Progress whose allegory is totally transparent (Obsinate, Pliable, Worldly Wiseman…), Melville’s symbols have an indissoluble ambiguity, a lingering feeling of disparate possible meanings. But this is how it’s supposed to be, I think, and speaks more to Melville’s genius and his slightly mystical taste for signifiers with multiple signifieds. As with Milton, I recommend hearing this book. Moby Dick is really funny—occasionally verging into slapstick (Ah, the meeting between Queequeq and Ishmael! Oh, the shark sermon!)—and its prose is magnificent from start to finish (though heavy on dialect speech, which can be hard to read). With a recording, someone else (I recommend Frank Muller at Recorded Books) has the trouble of doing the dialect and you just have the pleasure and the beauty. For those averse to audiobooks, I am particularly fond of the Norton edition with illustrations by Warren Chappell and notes and commentary by Harrison Hayford and Hershel Parker.
More Difficult Books