Somehow, I'd graduated from college - with a degree in English, no less - and had never had to read a single thing ever written by Charles Dickens. I read quite a bit on my own, but still found David Copperfield to be the height of ambition - my copy was 1001 pages long, and I hadn't ventured into a book over a thousand pages since I'd read The Stand at age 12. I cannot imagine that I am alone in completing my education and sidestepping Dickens altogether, so I think it's important I share my experience. In truth, the only reason I chose David Copperfield over, say, Great Expectations or Hard Times was the passing comment made by Jeff Daniels in The Squid And The Whale - dismissing a Tale of Two Cities as "minor Dickens," saying David Copperfield was "much richer."
It is rich. I tend towards modern fiction nowadays, fiction that, unexpectedly, takes you deep inside the heart of its characters sometimes bewildering behavior and humanity. What strikes me about the complex nature of the characters in Copperfield is the way it seems that no effort at all has been used to distinguish each of them, yet there is no doubt as to how vivid they are. Each character speaks in a tone that is a perfect elucidation of who they are - you can hear, just in the dialogue, the calm wisdom of Agnes, the parasitic obsequiousness of Uriah Heep, the punctilious rambling of Micawber, the pleasantries that barely mask the aggression of Miss Dartle, the rigid boredom of the Murdstones, the spoiled impishness when Dora speaks (so precise I heard her voice in cloying and nasal babytalk in my head). It's a delicate balancing act to keep this level of detail so hidden in his work, and it makes the plot machinations speedy and exciting. The varied heights in this book astound - moments of drama, whimsy, intrigue, romance abound, and the book is even prone to its bit of slapstick - midgets falling over into umbrellas, or extreme umbrage taken when donkeys appear on lawns.
What I mean is that it's easy to know you "should" read David Copperfield, but as anyone who's ever had a reading assignment knows, that doesn't necessarily make it something you'd want to do. I know, in a way, that David Copperfield is considered a standard - a book Tolstoy and Virginia Woolf, for example, hold as the pinnacle of English fiction - but then again, I slogged my way through supposed classics in school that, over time, have turned out to appear dull and unsurprising. David Copperfield is so underread these days that I had no idea what to expect, no notion of the amazing surprises within, the sublimely addictive cadence of Dickens' prose, the dazzle of his language. Reading it for no particular reason, then, was a triumph all around - a book that doesn't require a degree to "understand," that moves breezily through its pages, and that teaches a thing or two (or twenty) about the rich heights capable in fiction. It's as rich and winning as you've heard and then some.