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Vital Signs

Holy Ghosts and the Spirit of Christmas

It has been argued that, after Shakespeare, Charles Dickens is the finest writer in the English language.  His works have forged their way into the canon to such a degree that it is much more difficult to know which of his novels to leave off the recommended reading list than it is to choose which to include.  Each of us has his favorites, and each begs to differ with his neighbor’s choice.  True, in terms of pure brute statistics, we would be forced to concede that A Tale of Two Cities is preferred by most people, because it is usually listed as the bestselling novel of all time, with sales exceeding 200 million.  (Don Quixote, which is excluded from official statistics and has never been out of print since its first publication 400 years ago, has probably sold more copies.)

Those justifiably skeptical of the claim that the bestselling is necessarily the best might point to a poll conducted by the Folio Society, a de facto private club for bibliophiles, as a more objective way of judging the best of Dickens.  More than 10,000 members of the society voted in 1998 for their favorite books from any age.  The Lord of the Rings triumphed; Pride and Prejudice was runner-up; and David Copperfield was third.  Why, one wonders, was this particular Dickens classic selected ahead of Nicholas Nickleby, Oliver Twist, Great Expectations,...

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