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A Christmas Carol, New York-Style

A marathon reading at Housing Works Bookstore boasted 30 big-name writers and actors, but how did they stack up against Boz himself?

By Gillian Reagan
Tuesday, December 21st, 2010
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Scott Adsit of "30 Rock" reads from "A Christmas Carrol" at Housing Works Bookstore. (Photo by Mollie Chen)

Sam Lipsyte, the novelist whose literary satire has been celebrated for making misery hilarious, was the first to channel Scrooge. “Bah, humbug,” he said in a low, throat-vibrating bark. On Sunday, Dec. 19, he was standing on the balcony of Housing Works Bookstore on Crosby Street dressed in a modest black sweatshirt and weekend jeans, with one hand in his pocket. Starting a little after 1pm, Lipsyte and 29 other writers and actors including Jonathan Ames, Francine Prose, and Mary Gaitskill, took turns reading passages from A Christmas Carol, one of Charles Dickens’ most popular and celebrated works. In the passage lottery, Lipsyte got one of the best lines: Scrooge’s nephew Fred describes Christmas as “the only time I know of, in the long calendar of the year, when men and women seem by one consent to open their shut-up hearts freely, and to think of people below them as if they really were fellow-passengers to the grave, and not another race of creatures bound on other journeys.”

Dec. 19 was the 167-year anniversary of the first publication of A Christmas Carol, the story that Dickens wrote when his finances and his reputation had dipped to an all-time low. In 1843, parlour gossips whispered that “Boz [Dickens’ pen name] is going down,” while Christmas’ traditional celebrations in England were in danger of “decaying,” according to poet Thomas Hood. But within six weeks, Dickens wrote about a curmudgeonly old man who learned about the meaning of Christmas from a trio of ghostly visitors, and convinced his reluctant publisher to take a profit-sharing deal to print the first edition. The first 6,000 copies were sold out by Christmas Eve.

Dickens was once again a sensation. In December 1867, when he shipped to New York for a series of A Christmas Carol readings, Dickens was greeted with eager fans who waited for tickets overnight in the cold, wrapped in blankets and huddled around bonfires to keep warm. The cops were called in for crowd control. On the first night of his New York tour, a sold-out audience of more than 2,000 literary socialites and powerful businessmen gathered in the grand Steinway Hall by Central Park. They cried, laughed, and interrupted with applause during Dickens’ reading.

 
His voice was described as ‘husky’ and ‘not penetrating,’ by the Times. There was ‘a slight approach to a lisp.’ But when he introduced characters in the dialogue, Dickens ‘showed a remarkable and peculiar power.’ ‘Old Scrooge seemed present.’
 

The crowd at the Housing Works Bookstore was, let’s say, less enraptured. During the three hours of the reading, many patrons milled about the stacks, tapped their iPhones and thumbed through coffee table books during the reading. The cafe’s coffee machine sputtered in the corner. Tourists in hiking sneakers crinkled subway maps at one table, while a group of college-age girls glared into Macbooks at another. A bespectacled boy not older than five played games on an iPhone for a while, then he read aloud from a book titled The Twelve Bots of Christmas.

A few listened dutifully — their heavy coats hanging over crossed arms, knit scarves still wrapped around their necks. A few snapped photos when Scott Adsit, the actor who plays Pete Hornberger on NBC’s “30 Rock,” approached the microphone between the “Foreign Language” and “Pets” stacks on the balcony. He was dressed like a theater stagehand, in all black, holding his papers in one hand and gesturing with the other — curling and unfurling his fingers, as if conducting the characters’ voices. His croaky Scrooge asked, “Who are you?” when he saw the ghost of his former business partner Jacob Marley. “Ask me who I was,” hissed Adsit’s Marley.

Mr. Ames, creator of HBO’s “Bored to Death,” was up next, dressed for an Aspen afternoon in a robin blue knit cap and a camel-colored sweater with brown leather patches on the elbows. Unshaven and casual, Ames read in an even tone. He didn’t play with the characters’ voices — not as much as Irish novelist Colum McCann, Skateboards Will Be Free author Said Sayrafiezadeh, and actress Jill Hennessy, best known as Claire Kincaid on mid-’90s-era “Law & Order” and Dr. Jordan Cavanaugh, the sassy forensic pathologist on “Crossing Jordan.”

Charles Dickens reading his work.

Dickens’ imitations of his characters received mixed reviews. In 1867, it had been more than 20 years since Dickens visited America, where he was greeted like a 19th-century Beatle (girls begged him for locks of his hair). He was older, a graying 55, and his thin hair was brushed in a forward comb-over. Still, all 13 of his Steinway Hall performances were sold out. According to a New York Times description of a Dec. 9, 1867 performance at Steinway Hall, he walked on the stage with a “rapid step,” to a roaring applause and bowed several times before the crowd settled. He had a red flower in his breast pocket. Lit by hundreds of gaslights, Dickens read mostly by memory.

His voice was described as “husky” and “not penetrating,” by the Times. There was “a slight approach to a lisp.” But when he introduced characters in the dialogue, Dickens “showed a remarkable and peculiar power.” “Old Scrooge seemed present.” His Bob Cratchit lisped out “timid, trembling tones,” and “the audience caught sight at once of the little, round-faced, deferential, simple-hearted clerk as if he had entered bodily.” He imitated the mashing of potatoes and the stirring of gravy. He winked at the audience during a particularly funny scene. Several passages moved them to tears, according to the Times.

A Mark Twain report of one reading was less fawning. In fact, he bombed it. Dickens was a “bad reader,” he was “rather monotonous,” and “his pathos is only the beautiful pathos of his language — there is no heart, no feeling in it — it is glittering frostwork.”

Biting commentary was printed elsewhere. The New York Herald: Dickens “descended to a little claptrap for stage effect, as some of our Irish comedians or minstrels are apt to do before less cultivated audiences.” Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper: “Away with such fawning, boot-licking spirit! Charles Dickens is a man like unto other men; his books are powerfully written and very interesting; but do not warrant the erection of a demi-god from the simple author in a country composed of sovereigns.” Still, Dickens’ words were enough to entertain some of the most elite listeners in New York.

Today, A Christmas Carol performers have even tougher job of entertaining during readings. There are the countless theater productions and Hollywood renderings, from the good (Brian Desmond Hurst’s 1951 near-horror movie) to the bad (“A Flintstones Christmas Carol”), clouding imaginations. Not to mention those hypnotic iPhones.

On Sunday, some readers made an effort. Novelist and New Yorker regular Ms. Gaitskill, dressed in black under a simple brown coat, read with dramatic pauses as the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come lead Scrooge through a depressing vision. She smoked imaginary cigarettes and rubbed her belly during imitations of fat businessmen discussing his funeral. The audience gave a few whoops in praise when she was finished.

Mike Albo, the performer and novelist who wrote The Underminer: The Best Friend Who Casually Destroys Your Life, gave female characters shrill, cackling laughs as they disparaged a dead Scrooge.

Kurt Anderson, the author, Spy co-founder, WNYC Studio 360 host, and former New York editor, twirled a single finger into the air for emphasis as he read.

By the final passages, Thomas Beller, novelist and co-founder of Open City Magazine, was leaning against the railing and grasping the microphone. The writers had been reading for about three hours, and by this time, the crowd had turned over a few times. There was only about a half-dozen faces, out of a hundred or so, who had stayed for the entire reading. Most of the readers had also ducked out onto Crosby Street before the last passage was read.

According to the Times, they never had a chance of comparing to Dickens. “We have had, and still have, in New-York very many sources of intellectual and artistic amusement and delight,” according to the 1867 report. “[But] we never had, and we venture to say we never shall have, any entertainments more charming in themselves, or more full of genuine, legitimate and elevating pleasure than these readings of Mr. Dickens.”

Lede image courtesy of Mollie Chen.