Half a century ago, I left the suburbs of Philadelphia to become a boarding student at Milton Academy, a school so different from anything I knew that it might as well have been on the moon.
Suits at dinner? Amazingly, we wore them.
Toothpaste inspection? Yes, and your shoes had to be spit-polished.
Doing your homework in a communal study hall? Ninety minutes a night.
In those days, Milton – like many New England boarding schools – was staunchly traditional.
For me, the greatest tradition was this: The night before we went home for Christmas, the headmaster read “A Christmas Carol.”
Arthur Bliss Perry was as Old Boston as it gets. Son of a Harvard professor, he came to Milton to teach in 1921 and became headmaster in 1947. In l961, when I first encountered him, he was a figure out of time – a tall, thin patrician, wearing three-piece suits, a school tie and wire-rim eyeglasses with octagonal lenses.
The reading was in the school library, a red-brick, ivy-covered cathedral. I believe we stood as Mr. Perry entered and took his seat in a baronial chair that had been set between the two standing lamps that were the only lights.
And then Arthur Bliss Perry became Charles Dickens.
He read without accent and without drama. He didn’t play up the sentiment. He simply delivered – as he had each December for fourteen years and would for two more – the greatest Christmas story since the original one.
I got shivers. Maybe a tear. It was that remarkable an experience.
Cut to 2010. My daughter was eight years old – old enough for me to want her to experience “A Christmas Carol.”
She lasted five minutes.
Some parents, at that point, would blame my kid’s near-total boredom with Scrooge on computer games and TV and an overly permissive culture.
Not this parent.
Books change over time, and over 170 years, “A Christmas Carol” has changed more than most. The story is a slow starter. By our standards, the language is clotted and the piece is seriously overwritten – as I was reading it, I was scanning ahead to see what I could paraphrase or cut.
A few weeks after the non-start with our daughter, I realized that I want her to hear “A Christmas Carol” sooner than later. And I got serious – I started to work on the text. My goal wasn’t to rewrite Dickens, just to update the archaic language, trim the dialogue, and cut the extraneous characters – to reduce his 28,000 words to their essence, which is the story. In the end, I did have to write a bit, but not, I hope, so you’ll notice; I think of my words as minor tailoring, like sewing on a missing button or patching a rip at the knee.
The “Christmas Carol” that awaits you is half the length of the original. Like the Paige Peterson illustrations, it means to convey the feeling of London in 1843 without the formal diction and Victorian heaviness – it means to be a story that adults can read to their captivated kids right to the end, and that kids, starting with my daughter, can read by themselves with pleasure.
– Jesse Kornbluth