READING TOO much Dickens lately. Which reminds me of a Greenwich Village bookstore clerk. A young man. College age. I asked for a copy of "David Copperfield."
"Who's the author?" he asked. "Dickens," I said. "What's his first name?" he asked. Recalling that exchange, I'll start over:
Reading too much Charles Dickens lately --. First though, the dumb book-clerk story reminds me of a waiter story. If Dave Barry will forgive the plagiarism, I am not making this up. It really happened during a lunch in Martinsburg, W. Va., which doesn't matter. This is about youth, not West Virginia.
So four of us were lunching in Martinsburg, and I was playing the old crock. Saying something like, "It's amazing how little America's young crocks know of our ancient world. Take our waiter --"
He was an alert young crock. College age. "I'll bet he doesn't even know who Joe DiMaggio is." All three scoffed and scoffed. "Ha, ha! Not know who Joe DiMaggio is? Don't be silly."
When the waiter, alert and college age, came back to the table a scoffer asked if he knew who Joe DiMaggio was. His uneasy look said, "These old crocks are putting me on," but out loud he said, "Well, I think I've heard of him somewhere."
"Know who he is?"
The waiter took his time, searched the memory file in the back of his skull, then said, "An actor or something, isn't he?"
What can we take for granted anymore? You're going to say Newt Gingrich, everybody knows who he is. That's what you think. That's because you read newspapers, heed Tom Brokaw and are a C-Span junkie, making you the minority elite.
Probably think you're too good to watch MTV and diddle the day away surfing the shopping channels, don't you? Face the facts of modernity: College-age people never heard of Joe DiMaggio, never heard of Charles Dickens, are already forgetting they ever heard of Newt Gingrich, those who did.
See why I say, "Reading TOO much Charles Dickens lately"? It's a confession to a terminal social condition: headed down the tubes. Here's how bad off I am:
You know -- those few of you who don't fear the tubes as much as the alternative and so are still with me -- you know how Dickens had this ability to put the exactly right name on his fictional characters.
There are Hancock & Flobby, the dry-goods people; Uriah Heep, the pious hypocrite; Sir Mulberry Hawk, the seducer of innocent girls; Ebenezer Scrooge, the soul of greed; Mister Murdstone, the brutal stepfather; Mister Micawber, the eternal debtor; Josiah Bounderby, the loutish mill owner; Lord Lancaster Stiltstalking of the Circumlocution Office, and on, and on.
Because of reading too much Dickens lately, I am amazed at how many real people are going around in Dickensian names. What's worse, I waste hours puzzling over what kinds of characters Dickens would have built for these names.
For instance, what would he have done with Cito Gaston? The real Cito Gaston manages the Toronto baseball team, but I see Cito Gaston as a Lancashire businessman posing as a French count to con a snobby London banker into refinancing his chair factory.
All right, Dickens I am not. But who's to say you are not? If you've read this far, you just may be. So I challenge all who hunger for literary fame to test their Dickens potential thusly:
Compose a list of 10 well-known living people whose names would have caught Dickens' eye. Describe the character Dickens would have created for each name. If you feel cocky, fit all 10 into a single plot Dickens might have written, and send to me.
Win no money! Just tax-free fame. How? This column will publish the winner's very own name! Maybe part of his entry if it shows real Dickens know-how.
Need some Dickens-type names to get the feel of things? Here are a few to give you the idea: Ira Magaziner, Danielle Steele, Leon Panetta, Arianna Huffington, Dan Quayle, Lance Ito --
Better to pick your own. The world's full of them.
Russell Baker is a syndicated columnist.