Classic Book of the Month

NICK EICHER, HOST: Today is Tuesday, July 3rd. Thank you for turning to WORLD Radio to help start your day.

Good morning. I’m Nick Eicher.

MARY REICHARD, HOST: And I’m Mary Reichard. It’s the first Tuesday in July, and that means today we welcome Emily Whitten to discuss our Classic Book of the Month. Emily, glad you could join us today.

EMILY WHITTEN, BOOK REVIEWER: Hi, Mary! Great to be here.

Now last month we talked about J.R.R. Tolkien. This month I believe you wanted to recommend another British author. Am I correct?

WHITTEN: Mary, it doesn’t get any more classic or British than Charles Dickens. Last spring, our editor in chief, Marvin Olasky, suggested I try one of Dickens’ later books, “Hard Times.” And with a title like that, who could resist?

Ha. Right.

WHITTEN: But of course, we love Dickens because he often brings sympathetic characters through the dark corners of this world and then into the light. I think of Oliver Twist, who begins his tale starving in a boarding school. Remember this quote:

AUDIO: Please, sir, I want some more….

WHITTEN: As with Oliver’s story or “A Christmas Carol,” “Hard Times” does include some hard elements, but it also serves up lots of entertainment, and a few happy endings, too.

MR: Well, should we give Dickens himself any introduction before we get to those hard times?

WHITTEN: I can do that. Born in 1812 in Portsmouth, England, Dickens began life as part of a middle class Christian family. But when his father met with financial problems, Dickens went to work in a gritty industrial factory for a while. Of course, he did go back to school and went on to become the most popular author of the Victorian era. Sadly, he largely failed as a father and husband—he left his wife and kept a mistress for many years.

Ugh, that’s a shame. Well, let’s turn now to the story at hand. Why don’t you set the stage for us a bit?

WHITTEN: Sure. In the book’s opening scene, you meet two important characters. I found a clip of the 1977 TV adaptation of the book with Patrick Allen as Thomas Gradgrind. Here Gradgrind stands in front of a school room and gives the children his philosophy of education:

AUDIO: Facts alone are wanted in life. Plant nothing else and root out everything else. The minds of reasoning animals and that is what you are and what I am and that is a fact can be properly formed only by fact. That is the principle I bring up my own children. And in this school you’ll be brought up in it too. Stick to facts, sir. That is your charge here.

WHITTEN: In contrast, one student named Sissy Dupe apparently doesn’t know any facts other than her name. And Gradgrind happily corrects her on that, too! Sissy isn’t a name, he says. She should call herself Cecilia. He then asks her to define a horse, and she just stares at him. Now, Mary, you don’t have to answer this out loud, but just think, how would you define a horse?

Mr. Ed comes to mind. But hmm, that’s a tough one!

WHITTEN: Well, thankfully, Dickens provides a definition for us. I mentioned earlier that Marvin suggested this book, so I twisted his arm and got him to read a few of his favorite parts for us. Let’s listen now as he reads one of Gradgrind’s star pupil’s definition of a horse:

AUDIO: Quadraped, graminiverous, 40 teeth, namely 24 grinders 4 eye teeth and 12 incisive. And then Mr. Gradgrind says, Now girl number 20 you know what a horse is. [cut out long pause here 2:07-2:14] But does she? And does Mr. Gradgrind?

WHITTEN: I really appreciate the questions Marvin tagged on there. We quickly see that Sissy understands some important things Gradgrind doesn’t. She intuitively knows about the immaterial parts of life—things like faith, hope, and charity as Dickens puts it. Much of the plot depends on whether Gradgrind can learn what Sissy has to teach him in those areas.

That’s an interesting role reversal. And I think I heard you reference a Bible verse there. Would you say this is of special interest to Christian readers?

WHITTEN: I think so. We live in a more radically secular culture than Dickens did. I mean, Charles Darwin’s “On the Origin of Species” came out five years after this book. So if anything, the impulse to reduce man to a machine is stronger now. Dickens helps us see the consequences of this kind of thinking. Let’s listen again to one of Marvin’s favorite passages. This time, Gradgrind’s daughter confronts him near the end of the book:  

AUDIO: How could you give me life and take from me all the inappreciable things that raise it from the state of conscious death. Where are the graces of my soul? Where are the sentiments of my heart? What have you done, oh father, what have you done with the garden that should have bloomed once in this great wilderness here?

WHITTEN: You can hear the ache in those words…I think it’s really powerful. I should add that you won’t find Christ or His cross in this story. Because of that, Dickens occasionally feels to me like he’s singing the Beatles’ song, “All You Need is Love.” Even so, I don’t put myself above Gradgrind. There’s plenty I still need to learn from Sissy, too.

Sounds like a worthwhile read.

WHITTEN: And I hope a fun one, too, since Dickens captures the full range of human experience—old, young, rich, poor…in this book, there’s a circus, a romance, a bank robbery, and of course, a lot of turtle soup with a golden spoon. And if you wanna know what I mean by turtle soup, Mary, you just have to read the book.

MR: All right. Well, I’ll keep that in mind. Thanks for the recommendation this month, Emily.

WHITTEN: You’re welcome, Mary.

MR: This month’s classic book recommendation is Hard Times by Charles Dickens.

(Photo/Charles Dickens book cover)

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