A "Small Collection of Books" Can Transform a Life

My book club read for the summer is David Copperfield by Charles Dickens. I’m four chapters in and already captivated by the tale, though Dickens’ exploration of human psychology in other works I’ve read (Bleak House, A Tale of Two Cities, and A Christmas Carol), has long fascinated me and appealed to my writerly side. Alongside Dickens, I am also reading Charlotte Mason’s Toward a Philosophy of Education, which has attuned me to ideas pertaining to the education of children, and in particular, to methods that align with CM’s teachings. As a result, certain passages in my leisure reading are springing up from the page and taking me captive in delight—passages which illustrate the lasting effect of beautiful literature on a child’s heart. I want to share the most compelling passage with you from my reading today.

Young David Copperfield has just returned from a seaside holiday to find his widowed mother remarried to a stern and controlling man. His home—its occupants, rules, and atmosphere—has changed forever, shattering the life he once knew. Now, as David grapples with the jarring realities of this new life, he finds difficulty accomplishing his reading lessons, which must be conducted within the hearing of his new stepfather. These lessons go badly for him, and the consequences thereof; but he copes and survives, in this way:

My father had left a small collection of books in a little room upstairs, to which I had access (for it adjoined my own) and which nobody else in our house ever troubled. From that blessed little room, Roderick Random, Peregrine Pickle, Humphrey Clinker, Tom Jones, the Vicar of Wakefield, Don Quixote, Gil Blas, and Robinson Crusoe, came out, a glorious host, to keep me company. They kept alive my fancy, and my hope of something beyond that place and time, – they, and the Arabian Nights, and the Tales of the Genii, – and did me no harm; for whatever harm was in some of them was not there for me; I knew nothing of it. It is astonishing to me now, how I found time, in the midst of my porings and blunderings over heavier themes, to read those books as I did. It is curious to me how I could ever have consoled myself under my small troubles (which were great troubles to me), by impersonating my favourite characters in them – as I did – and by putting Mr. and Miss Murdstone into all the bad ones – which I did too. I have been Tom Jones (a child’s Tom Jones, a harmless creature) for a week together. I have sustained my own idea of Roderick Random for a month at a stretch, I verily believe. I had a greedy relish for a few volumes of Voyages and Travels – I forget what, now – that were on those shelves; and for days and days I can remember to have gone about my region of our house, armed with the centre-piece out of an old set of boot-trees – the perfect realization of Captain Somebody, of the Royal British Navy, in danger of being beset by savages, and resolved to sell his life at a great price. The Captain never lost dignity, from having his ears boxed with the Latin Grammar. I did; but the Captain was a Captain and a hero, in despite of all the grammars of all the languages in the world, dead or alive.

This was my only and my constant comfort. When I think of it, the picture always rises in my mind, of a summer evening, the boys at play in the churchyard, and I sitting on my bed, reading as if for life. Every barn in the neighbourhood, every stone in the church, and every foot of the churchyard, had some association of its own, in my mind, connected with these books, and stood for some locality made famous in them. I have seen Tom Pipes go climbing up the church-steeple; I have watched Strap, with the knapsack on his back, stopping to rest himself upon the wicket-gate; and I know that Commodore Trunnion held that club with Mr. Pickle, in the parlour of our little village alehouse.

(David Copperfield, chapter 4)

From a “small collection of books,” these characters—some of whom are familiar to us from our childhood reading, though there are several here whose stories I need to add to my reading list—are the significant companions and heroes of David’s youth.  Through them, he encounters, and prevails, against evil.  Through them, he comes to know the world and its adventures outside the isolation and repression of his life at home.  These books provide the enchantment and hope that help him to transcend the ugliness of his circumstances…and I’ll just have to keep reading to find out how it all turns out for him.

I think he will make it. I think he will become like his heroes. I think he will overcome.

Character and integrity are key.  These virtues are nourished from “feasting” upon great literature, as Charlotte Mason has imparted to me.

There you have it.  Happy reading!

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