The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion The joy of reading Dickens proves that God blessed us, every one

"Scrooge's Visit from Marley," illustration by John Leech (1817-1864), "A Christmas Carol" by Charles Dickens. (iStock)

Benjamin Dreyer is Random House’s executive managing editor and copy chief and the author of “Dreyer’s English: An Utterly Correct Guide to Clarity and Style.”

“You may be a bit of undigested beef,” Charles Dickens wrote, presumably sometime in late October or early November of 1843, “a spot of mustard, a crumb of cheese, a fragment of an underdone potato.”

Then he must have paused thoughtfully over the manuscript, despite feeling the hot breath of his publisher on the back of his neck, for “A Christmas Carol” would not be completed until early December of that year and published on Dec. 19, barely in time for holiday sales. Dickens crossed out the word “spot” and replaced it, in the tight space just above the line, with “blot.”

Christmas, its generalized, secular pleasures aside, may not be part of my religion, but Dickens certainly is. That lovely self-edit — not only swapping out an ordinary, somewhat colorless word for one so evocative you can virtually smell it, but also tagging onto the b’s of “bit” and “beef” one more bumpity b sound — is worthy of worship.

I was a late convert. In adolescence, I had made halfhearted attempts at “Oliver Twist” and “Great Expectations,” whose plots, or at least abbreviations of them, I already knew from movie adaptations that I could absorb in hours rather than weeks. Eventually, in my early 30s, as I recall, I picked up “Bleak House,” about which I knew absolutely nothing except that I liked the foreboding title.

I was immediately besotted. Certainly by the procession of stately, muddy, foggy sentence fragments with which the novel opens, and by the irresistibly complex and sensational story of a dead man’s conflicting wills and an interminable lawsuit, with a particularly memorable detour into spontaneous human combustion (one of the great “Wait, what?”s of literature). Dickens, I discovered, nourishes the deeply human craving, entrenched in many of us as we’re first being read to in childhood, to find out what is going to happen next. And his joy in the English language is catnip to anyone who savors the written word.

You can visit Dickens’s manuscript of “A Christmas Carol” right now in New York City at the Morgan Library & Museum, where it has lived since the late 1890s and is displayed each year opened to a different page.

Or you can flip through the entire thing online, in all its scrawled-over glory, from the majestically punctuated opening line, “Marley was dead: to begin with,” straight through to Tiny Tim’s conclusive “God Bless Us, Every One!” The scrumptious quotableness includes my all-time favorite, Scrooge’s icy benediction to the hapless poor who won’t avail themselves of prisons and workhouses — “If they would rather die, they had better do it, and decrease the surplus population” — which serves to remind us that the attitude of the haves, at least some of the haves, toward the have-nots is eternal.

You can also make a party of “A Christmas Carol,” which begs to be read aloud, as Dickens himself did in his lucrative side hustle as a performer. In fact, it was the fable of Scrooge and the spirits that composed, along with an excerpt of “The Pickwick Papers,” the author’s final public reading, shortly before his exhausted death, at age 58, in June 1870. (I can only imagine that he trimmed the text; reading the whole thing aloud, depending upon how much Christmas ham you pile on, takes a good three hours.)

For further fun: Imagine the author’s sweaty realization, as he’s hastily pulling into the home stretch, that he has delivered the promised progress of the Three Spirits — Jacob Marley makes it abundantly, explicitly clear that only one will appear per night — over the course of a single evening. “The Spirits have done it all in one night,” Scrooge exclaims. “They can do anything they like.” And then adding, for good if desperate measure: “Of course they can. Of course they can.”

Nice save, Charles.

I can’t even begin to estimate how many times I’ve read “A Christmas Carol.” Though an anxious timidity makes me averse to doing things I’ve never done before, I find great pleasure in doing things a second time, third time, fifth time, hundredth time. And each and every reading of Dickens’s novella delivers both the pleasure of the familiar and, as great pieces of writing invariably do, fresh surprises and insights.

As the end of a long and often grueling year approaches, I’m happy to turn once more to a tale of damnation averted, wrongs reasonably righted and that big prize turkey hanging in the window of “the Poulterer’s in the next street but one, at the corner.”