All you need to know about the books you meant to read

This week: A CHRISTMAS CAROL (1843) by Charles Dickens
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Plot: With Scrooge, Dickens moulded a figure of mythic proportions; he also put the finishing touches to the modern concept of Christmas as a cosy exhibition of communal gluttony.

It is Christmas Eve, Scrooge loves money and hates people: he rejects the friendship of his nephew and refuses charity to the poor. "Solitary as an oyster", he wants to be left alone, believing social responsibility ends with the payment of taxes.

The ghost of his dead business partner appears to him: Marley is compelled to wander the earth chained to the boxes of cash that he had forged in life; his punishment is that he is helpless to relieve the human suffering around him. If Scrooge is to evade a similar fate, he must follow the ghosts of Christmas Past, Present and Future who are to lead him to self- knowledge.

Christmas Past shows Scrooge to have been a neglected child; this results in an inability to love as an adult. Scrooge turns away from the affections of a young woman who subsequently marries and has dozens of children. The joys of family life are not to be his.

Christmas Present offers a panoramic vision of Christmas celebrated across the country, from lighthouse keepers to Scrooge's clerk Bob Cratchit, his wife, and litter of little Cratchits, including Tiny Tim. Finally Scrooge is exposed to the terrifying allegorical children, Ignorance and Want.

Christmas Future puts Scrooge onto the trail of a mysterious stranger who was universally reviled in life and is now treated with contempt in death. His weather-beaten gravestone stands unmourned: on it is carved "Ebeneezer Scrooge". As Scrooge reads his future, he faints.

He wakes up. It is only Christmas morning. A changed character, Scrooge becomes a merry old gent with a twinkle in his eye, dispensing money and mirth with equal liberality.

Theme: The individual is personally responsible for righting social wrongs. It is not enough to pay taxes and hope that a new Law and Order bill will send the troublesome poor to prison.

Christmas Day is a gesture of hope: for one day of the year, family and friends come together and eat, drink and dance to demonstrate how enjoyable life can be. Sensuality and spirituality need not be perpetual antagonists.

Style: A unique combination of ghost story, fairy tale, allegory and bitter social commentary yoked together by the poetry of the grotesque: Marley's ghastly face glows "like a bad lobster in a dark cellar"; Mrs Fezziwig's calves, when dancing, "shone like moons".

Chief strengths: This book is a masterpiece of compression. In a few lines Scrooge is established as a monster who dares to articulate the repressed spitefulness of Everyman: "every idiot who goes about with Merry Christmas on his lips should be boiled with his own pudding and buried with a stake of holly through his breast." The sentiments may be repulsive, but Scrooge's pungent humour is attractive.

Chief weakness: Dickens tries too hard to squeeze the tear-ducts; it takes a strong constitution to stomach Tiny Tim.

What they thought of it then: 6,000 copies were sold in a trice and it was described as a "national institution"; on the strength of one reading, Carlyle nipped out and bought a turkey.

What we think of it now: Much read but largely underrated. The weirdness of the story is usually forgotten, displaced by accusations of sentimentality. In fact, Dickens holds the unique mixture in magical suspension.

Responsible for: Numerous adaptations, including Disney's version where Donald Duck plays Scrooge, Mickey Mouse, Cratchit. This tumbling together of Victorian and contemporary cultural icons should excite the Barthes division of the postmodernist brigade.

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