A review of

The Pickwick Papers

by Charles Dickens

Central Question: Who was the first Wikipedia contributor?
Full title of novel: The Posthumous Papers of the Pickwick Club: Containing a Faithful Record of the Perambulations, Perils, Travels, Adventures and Sporting Transactions of the Corresponding Members; Publication date of novel: monthly between April 1836 and November 1837; Characters in novel with notably Dickensian names: Augustus Snodgrass, Serjeant Buzfuz, Alfred Jingle, Tracy Tupman, Job Trotter; Familiar name for obesity hyperventilation syndrome: Pickwickian syndrome; Representative sentence: “Now, Mr. Pickwick being in the very best of health and spirits, had been making himself perfectly delightful all dinner-time, and was at this moment engaged in an energetic conversation with Emily and Mr. Winkle: bowing his head, courteously, in the emphasis of his discourse, gently waving his left hand to lend force to his observations, and all glowing with placid smiles.”

Fat times have not vanished in the United States. We still have an obesity epidemic, for one thing, and the metaphorical blubber of more digital information than anyone needs; both have grown out of the excesses of richer years. It is an odd condition, but Dickens foresaw it nearly two hundred years ago and devised strategies for coping with it. The Pickwick Papers, his first novel, gave the 1830s a formerly successful and presently unemployed character who lives happily with his literal fatness in a realm metaphorically plump with information: Samuel Pickwick, an amiable amateur researcher drawn to absurd minutiae in a world brimming with social chitchat and with the kind of free time that allows studies on “the mighty ponds of Hampstead” and a “Theory of Tittlebats.”

The novel begins as portly Pickwick, having accrued a comfortable amount of wealth and status, sets out to gather and share some information just for the joy of it. As he later remarks, “Nearly the whole of my previous life having been devoted to business and the pursuit of wealth, numerous scenes of which I had no previous conception have dawned upon me—I hope to the enlargement of my mind, and the improvement of my understanding.” Having enlarged himself by eating up so much of the world, that is, he now seeks to make his understanding commensurate with his body. (Of course, it would have been better if he’d sought understanding first, but then we wouldn’t have a novel.)

We hope you enjoy this excerpt.

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—Adam Colman

Adam Colman lives in Western Massachusetts, where he’s working on at least two books, one of which is a study of addiction in nineteenth-century British literature.

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