In the summer of 1985, when I was fourteen years old, I caught a terrible cold. It was the week of our family vacation at Long Beach Island, New Jersey. Stuck in a rented house with neither television nor radio, I had literally nothing to do but lie there feeling miserable while everyone else was on the beach having a wonderful time.
After a few days, my father came up to my room carrying a white paper bag from the corner drug store. In it, he promised, was something that would make me feel better.
I reached into the bag expecting to find medicine. Instead, to my surprise, I pulled out a book. It was a fat paperback, maybe three inches thick, with the homeliest boy I'd ever seen painted on the front cover. David Copperfield, it said, by Charles Dickens. I flipped through the pages, letting them fan rapidly off my thumb. There were no pictures. And the print was very small.
"It's a classic," my dad said, as if that meant anything to me.
If my father had given me that book in any other setting, I would probably never have read it. But given nothing but the peeling paint on the ceiling to compete for my attention, I decided to read. And I kept reading day after day, week after week, until I came to the end.
I remember the moment vividly. It was 2:00 a.m., and I was babysitting for some friends of my parents. As I read the final pages, tears poured down my cheeks, and my nose ran shamelessly. I couldn’t bear that I was alone. Such words, such happenings were meant to be shared. I decided to call my mother.
My mother answered the phone and was instantly thrown into a panic. The combination of the late hour and my sobs filled her imagination with horrors. Oblivious to this, I started to read her Dora's deathbed scene, in which she entrusts her young husband to the care of dear Agnes – the woman who had loved David in secret all along. Agnes descended the stairs, hand upraised to heaven, indicating Dora's death. It was simply the most beautiful thing I had ever read.
Through reading David Copperfield, I became fascinated with people. The characters in the story consumed me and knit themselves into my heart. They became the archetypes for all the other people I would meet in my life. Through the novel, I came to understand that there were weak but well-intentioned people, like Clara and Mr. Micawber; selfish, manipulative people, like the Murdstones and Steerforth; unimpressive but good people, like Daniel and Ham; trapped people fighting their own hearts, like Annie; people who create their own problems, like Mrs. Gummidge and Em'ly; strong, redemptive people like Betsey, Peggotty, and Agnes. As I read (and re-read) David Copperfield, I formulated an idea in my mind of the kinds of people I could respect – and the kind of person I wanted to become.
Thanks to David Copperfield, I also became enamored with words – so much so, that it has ruined all other forms of art for me. It was with words, not pictures, that Dickens breathed life into his characters and made them living souls. For example, one cannot read these words without conjuring not just a mental picture but a kindred sympathy with young David, face to face with the Aunt who had rejected him at birth – his sole fault being his gender:
Not having as yet finished my own breakfast, I attempted to hide my confusion by proceeding with it; but my knife tumbled over my fork, my fork tripped up my knife, I chipped bits of bacon a surprising height into the air instead of cutting them for my own eating, and choked myself with my tea, which persisted in going the wrong way instead of the right one, until I gave in altogether, and sat blushing under my aunt's close scrutiny.
It is that connection with souls through words that has stayed with me. To this day, when I visit a museum, I wander around feeling restless and bored until I happen to find a glass case in which are displayed journals or letters. Then I pore over the faded strokes of ink or lead in a tireless attempt to decipher meaning. Here, in their words, I find a connection with the people of the past -- not in their clothing, tools, or trinkets.
Young Copperfield's aunt once told him, "It's in vain to recall the past, unless it works some influence upon the present." That is why today that tattered copy of David Copperfield is preserved in a glass shadow box in my office. Like a framed muse, it hangs over the desk where I hammer away at my first attempt at a book – which is, ironically, a memoir. As I begin writing my life story, I hear the echo of Dickens' young narrator: "Whether I shall turn out to be the hero of my own life, or whether that station will be held by anybody else, these pages must show." I relate to this statement on a whole new level now. On the days I find myself blocked, unable to string five words together, I fondly recall Mr. Dick, brought to a standstill in the writing of his Memorial by the unwelcome intrusion of Charles the First's head, which "had been constantly getting into it, and was there now."
To this day, when I pass out copies of David Copperfield to my high school students and hear their groans as they eyeball the cover, binding, and typeface, I make them a promise. I tell them that if they will bear with me to the end of this book, they will never be the same. So far, no student has proved me wrong.