17 Facts About Charles Dickens

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It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, and Charles Dickens wrote it all down—the gruesome truths about Victorian England and the perils of Britain’s social class system. His unprecedented celebrity made him the most popular novelist of his century, and since then Charles Dickens's books have never been out of print. But the author of Great Expectations, Bleak House, and dozens of other works was more than just a writer. Here are 17 facts about Charles Dickens on his 207th birthday.

1. Charles Dickens was forced to work at a young age. 

The eldest son of Elizabeth and John Dickens was born in February 1812 on Portsea Island in the British city of Portsmouth, and moved around with his family in his younger years to Yorkshire and then London. He was, admittedly, a “very small and not over-particularly-taken-care-of boy."

When his father was called to London again to be a clerk in the Naval Pay Office, the elder Dickens amassed so much debt that the entire family—except for Charles and his older sister Fanny—were sent to Marshalsea debtors’ prison (later the setting of Dickens’s novel Little Dorrit).

Left to fend for himself at only 12 years old, Dickens had to drop out of private school and work at Warren’s Blacking Warehouse along the River Thames, earning six shillings a week pasting labels onto blacking pots used for shoe polish.

2. Another job taught Charles Dickens how to write.

In 1827 and 1828, the 15-year-old Dickens found work as a junior clerk at the law office of Ellis and Blackmore—but instead of brushing up on legal work to eventually become a lawyer, he voraciously studied the shorthand method of writing developed by Thomas Gurney. The skill allowed him to begin working as a reporter in the 1830s covering Parliament and British elections for outlets like the Morning Chronicle.

3. Charles Dickens published works under a pseudonym. 

Dickens’s first published works appeared in 1833 and 1834 without his author's byline. In August 1834, his short story "The Boarding-House," published in the Monthly Magazine, featured his chosen pseudonym, “Boz.”

The single-syllable name came from a childhood rendering of the character Moses from Irish writer Oliver Goldsmith’s 1766 novel The Vicar of Wakefield, later mentioned in Dickens’s own A Tale of Two Cities.

Dickens called his brother Augustus “Moses,” but later explained it was “facetiously pronounced through the nose, [and] became Boses, and being shortened, became Boz. Boz was a very familiar household word to me, long before I was an author, and so I came to adopt it.”

The nom de plume became so popular that he published a compilation of his essays and short fiction called Sketches by Boz in 1839.

4. Charles Dickens's fame kept a certain idiom alive.

The phrase “what the dickens,” first mentioned in Shakespeare’s The Merry Wives of Windsor, was a euphemism for conjuring the devil. In his book Other Dickens: Pickwick to Chuzzlewit, author John Bowen explained the name “was a substitute for ‘the devil,’ or the deuce (a card or a dice with two spots), the doubling of the devil in short.”

Dickens allegedly used the pseudonym Boz to deflect any unseemly comparisons to Satan, but once his real name was revealed and the public became familiar with his work, Dickens ended up keeping the then-200-year-old phrase en vogue.

5. Charles Dickens might have had epilepsy.

Though any indication he might have suffered from epilepsy isn’t corroborated by contemporary medical records, he did return to the neurological disorder enough times in his work that some speculate that he might have drawn from his own experiences with seizures.

Characters such as Guster from Bleak House, Monks from Oliver Twist, and Bradley Headstone from Our Mutual Friend all suffered from epilepsy.

6. America was not Charles Dickens's favorite place.

By the time he first journeyed to America in 1842 on a lecture tour—later chronicled in his travelogue American Notes for General Circulation—Dickens was an international celebrity because of his writing, and he was received as such when he toured east coast cities like Boston and New York.

“I can do nothing that I want to do, go nowhere where I want to go, and see nothing that I want to see,” he complained in a letter about his U.S. travels. “If I turn into the street, I am followed by a multitude.”

Though he loved the fast-growing cities and was awed by a trip west to the American prairie, Dickens didn’t necessarily have the best time on the whole. Especially in the country's capital: “As Washington may be called the headquarters of tobacco-tinctured saliva,” he wrote, “the time is come when I must confess, without any disguise, that the prevalence of those two odious practices of chewing and expectorating began about this time to be anything but agreeable, and soon became most offensive and sickening.”

7. Charles Dickens helped the search for the lost Sir John Franklin expedition.

The author used his influence to help Lady Jane Franklin search for her husband, Sir John Franklin, who disappeared in the Arctic along with 128 crew on the HMS Erebus and HMS Terror while searching for the Northwest Passage in 1845. He wrote a two-part analysis of the ill-fated voyage called "The Lost Arctic Voyagers," and even lectured across Britain hoping to raise money for a rescue mission.

In the end the missing vessels weren’t found until 2014 and 2016, respectively, and various explanations for the crew’s fate have been suggested. But at the time, Dickens gave in to racist sentiment and blamed the Inuit, writing, "No man can, with any show of reason, undertake to affirm that this sad remnant of Franklin's gallant band were not set upon and slain by the Esquimaux themselves … We believe every savage to be in his heart covetous, treacherous, and cruel." Inuit oral histories and other evidence show that Franklin’s men actually died from starvation, disease, or exposure.

8. Charles Dickens perfected the cliffhanger ending.

Most of Dickens's novels—including classics like David Copperfield and Oliver Twist—were initially written in monthly, weekly, or infrequent installments on a subscription basis or in magazines, only to be republished in complete book form later. In doing so, Dickens employed cliffhangers from chapter to chapter to get eager readers to buy subsequent episodes.

In one 1841 incident, American readers were so anxious to know what happened in Dickens’s The Old Curiosity Shop that they flocked to docks in New York harbor, hoping to ask passengers arriving from Europe whether they’d read the ending of the story and if the character of Nell had died. (Spoiler alert: She did.)

9. Charles Dickens had pet ravens and kept them around even after they died.

Dickens owned a beloved raven he named Grip, and it even appears as a character in his novel Barnaby Rudge. In an 1841 letter to a friend named George Cattermole, Dickens said he wanted the titular character of the book “always in company with a pet raven, who is immeasurably more knowing than himself. To this end I have been studying my bird, and think I could make a very queer character of him.”

Following the bird’s death from eating lead paint chips later that year, Dickens replaced it with another raven, also called Grip, which was allegedly the inspiration behind Edgar Allan Poe’s poem "The Raven.” When the second Grip met his demise, Dickens had a taxidermist stuff and mount the bird in an elaborate wooden and glass case, which is now in the Free Library of Philadelphia’s collection.

10. Charles Dickens also kept his pet cat around for a while. 

Not to be outdone by birds, companions of the feline variety also accompanied Dickens throughout his life, with the author once declaring, “What greater gift than the love of a cat?”

When his cat Bob died in 1862, he had its paw stuffed and mounted to an ivory letter opener and engraved with “C.D., In memory of Bob, 1862.” The letter opener is now on display at the Berg Collection of English and American Literature at the New York Public Library.

11. Charles Dickens revealed that his earliest inspiration was Little Red Riding Hood.

In 1850, Dickens began editing a weekly magazine, Household Words, to which he also contributed short fiction and serialized novels. In one of his first stories for the magazine, “A Christmas Tree,” Dickens described his earliest muse as the main character in the fairytale Little Red Riding Hood—perhaps as a way of dealing with his own childhood innocence devoured by unexpected evils. “She was my first love,” he wrote. “I felt that if I could have married Little Red Riding-Hood, I should have known perfect bliss. But, it was not to be.”

12. Charles Dickens wasn't afraid to speak his mind.

In an 1860 letter written to Florence Marryat, the daughter of his friend Captain Frederick Marryat, Dickens berated her after she asked him for writing advice and submitted a short story for a literary journal he was editing called All the Year Round.

“To read professed contributions honestly, and communicate a perfectly unprejudiced decision respecting every one of them to its author or authoress, is a task, of the magnitude of which you evidently have no conception,” Dickens told her. “I cannot […] alter what seems to me to be the fact regarding this story (for instance), any more than I can alter my eyesight or my hearing. I do not deem it suitable for my Journal,” and later telling her plainly, “I do not think it is a good story.”

13. Charles Dickens was a prodigious wordsmith.

Not to be outdone by the likes of William Shakespeare, Dickens was the other British writer known to create words and phrases of his own. Thank Dickens for words and phrases like butter-fingers, flummox, the creeps, dustbin, ugsome, slangular, and more.

14. Charles Dickens started a home for "fallen women."

With help from millionaire banking heiress Angela Coutts, Dickens set up and effectively managed Urania Cottage, a rehabilitation home for homeless women, ex-prisoners, and prostitutes so they could (hopefully) emigrate to Britain’s colonies and reintegrate into Victorian society.

According to The Guardian, Dickens would “visit the house in Shepherd's Bush, often several times a week, to supervise it, select inmates, consult with prison governors, hire and fire matrons, deal with the drains and the gardener, report to Coutts in detail several times a week on whatever was happening there, handle the money, keep careful written accounts of the backgrounds of the girls, and arrange their emigration to Australia, South Africa, or Canada.”

15. Charles Dickens was a Victorian ghostbuster.

In an era of séances and mediums, when many Victorians believed in both spiritualism and science, Dickens didn’t discriminate. In fact, along with other authors like Arthur Conan Doyle and William Butler Yeats, he was a member of the Ghost Club, a kind of members-only group that attempted to investigate supposed supernatural encounters and hauntings, often exposing frauds in the process.

It makes sense, considering that some of Dickens’s best-known work, like A Christmas Carol, hinges on the supernatural. But unlike Conan Doyle, he remained a skeptic.

“My own mind is perfectly unprejudiced and impressible on the subject. I do not in the least pretend that such things are not,” Dickens said in a September 1859 letter to writer William Howitt. “But … I have not yet met with any Ghost Story that was proved to me, or that had not the noticeable peculiarity in it—that the alteration of some slight circumstance would bring it within the range of common natural probabilities.”

16. A train crash nearly derailed Our Mutual Friend.

On June 10, 1865, Dickens was traveling home from France when his train derailed while crossing a bridge, and his car was left dangling from the tracks. After finding a conductor to give him keys to the seven first-class train cars that had tumbled into the river below, the then 53-year-old writer helped save stranded passengers.

When all was said and done, he was forced to climb back into the dangling car to retrieve a just-completed missing installment of Our Mutual Friend that he was supposed to send to his publishers.

17. Charles Dickens was buried in Westminster Abbey against his wishes.

The author had specific plans for how he wanted to spend eternity. He initially wished to be buried next to his wife Catherine’s sister, his muse Mary Hogarth (who had died in 1837 and was buried in Kensal Green Cemetery in London). He then requested to be buried in a simple grave in the cemetery of Rochester Cathedral in Kent.

Dickens collapsed from a stroke while dining with his wife's other sister, Georgina Hogarth, at his home; he died on June 9, 1870. But he didn't end up in either of his chosen spots. Instead, he was whisked away to the Poets’ Corner of Westminster Abbey because the Dean of Westminster, Arthur Stanley, wanted a famous writer to give some cultural significance to the Abbey at the time.

Despite stipulating in his will that "no public announcement be made of the time or place of my burial," hundreds of thousands of people lined up to walk past his body in Westminster Abbey.

A Ring Containing a Lock of Charlotte Brontë’s Hair Found Its Way to Antiques Roadshow

Hulton Archive/Getty Images
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

A ring that “very likely” contains a lock of Charlotte Brontë’s hair appeared on a recent episode of the Antiques Roadshow that was filmed in northern Wales, according to The Guardian. The jewelry itself isn’t especially valuable; the TV show's appraiser, jewelry specialist Geoffrey Munn, said he would have priced it at £25, or about $32.

However, an inscription of the Jane Eyre author’s name as well as the year she died (1855) raises the value to an estimated £20,000 ($26,000). That isn’t too shabby, considering that the owner found the ring among her late father-in-law’s belongings in the attic.

A section of the ring comes unhinged to reveal a thin strand of hair inside—but did it really belong to one of the famous Brontë sisters? Munn seems to think so, explaining that it was not uncommon for hair to be incorporated into jewelry in the 19th century.

“There was a terror of not being able to remember the face and character of the person who had died,” he said. “Hair wreaths” and other pieces of "hair work" were popular ways of paying tribute to deceased loved ones in England and America from the 17th century to the early 20th century.

In this case, the hair inside the ring was finely braided. Munn went on to add, “It echoes a bracelet Charlotte wore of her two sisters’ hair … So it’s absolutely the focus of the mid- to late 19th century and also the focus of Charlotte Brontë.”

The Brontë Society & Brontë Parsonage Museum, which has locks of Brontë’s hair in its collection, said that it had no reason to doubt the authenticity of the ring.

[h/t The Guardian]

25 Books Every Book Lover Should Read

iStock.com/Vladimir Vladimirov
iStock.com/Vladimir Vladimirov

Books have the power to inspire our imagination, transport us to faraway worlds, and make us think and feel deeply. Luckily, bibliophiles of all ages have a wealth of excellent fiction and nonfiction books to choose from. Here, we've gathered up 25 books every book lover should read—from classic novels to contemporary bestsellers.

1. Siddhartha // Hermann Hesse

Published in 1922, Siddhartha is loosely based on the life of Buddha. Hermann Hesse tells the story of Siddhartha, a young man who leaves his comfortable home and prosperous family to seek meaning. Throughout the novel, Siddhartha joins a group of ascetics, works for a merchant, falls in love, has a son, and becomes a ferryman. As an old man, he becomes wise and finally attains enlightenment.

Buy it on Amazon.

2. The Aeneid // Virgil

In this epic Latin poem, Virgil relates the story of Aeneas, a Trojan man who became the legendary ancestor of the Romans. Written between 29 and 19 B.C.E., during the last years of the poet's life, the Aeneid follows Aeneas and his men on their journey from Troy to Carthage, Sicily, the Underworld, and Italy. Like Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey, it's full of thrilling adventures, frustrating obstacles, and heroic deeds.

Buy it on Amazon.

3. Man’s Search For Meaning // Viktor Frankl

Written by Holocaust survivor and psychiatrist Viktor Frankl, this 1946 book has influenced millions of readers around the world. By discussing his experiences in Auschwitz, Frankl examines how anyone can cope with horrific suffering and, eventually, move forward. Frankl also explains his theory of logotherapy, the view that all humans are primarily driven not by the need for power or pleasure, but to determine and seek their own meaning of life.

Buy it on Amazon.

4. The Handmaid’s Tale // Margaret Atwood

This dystopian novel, first published in 1985 and still one of Atwood's most acclaimed works, explores the struggles of people living under a theocratic, totalitarian government called the Republic of Gilead, which has replaced the United States. Offred, one of the Handmaids, is kept primarily for reproductive purposes, and has no control over her own body or life—she's not even allowed to read. Atwood’s haunting depiction of this authoritarian society has been turned into a film (1990), opera (2000), and most recently, a TV show from Hulu.

Buy it on Amazon.

5. Walden // Henry David Thoreau

In the first chapter of Walden (1854), Henry David Thoreau wrote: “The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation.” More than 150 years later, people still quote this line, which is a testament to Walden's influence and enduring legacy. Thoreau describes his two-year stint living alone, off the grid, in a cabin near Walden Pond in Concord, Massachusetts. The book has a little something for everyone, whether you're a minimalist, individualist, botanist, or ecologist.

Buy it on Amazon.

6. The Unbearable Lightness Of Being // Milan Kundera

The cover of 'The Unbearable Lightness of Being'
Amazon

The Unbearable Lightness of Being (1984) starts in Czechoslovakia in 1968. Milan Kundera, who was born in Czechoslovakia but moved to France to escape communism, sets his novel during the Prague Spring, in which Czech citizens were temporarily given more freedoms. Tomas, a womanizing surgeon, is married to photographer Tereza. Tomas has an affair with Sabina, an artist who also loves Franz, a professor. Kundera weaves love triangles (or squares) in with philosophical ideas about the meaning of life, delivering it all in beautiful prose.

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7. Dracula // Bram Stoker

Long before Twilight, Dracula (1897) introduced many of the conventions we now associate with the blood-sucking world of vampires. The Gothic novel takes place in Transylvania and England in the 1890s, and follows the attempts of the Count to spread his curse. Although not a commercial success during Bram Stoker’s lifetime, Dracula has continued to impact culture more than a century after it was published.

Buy it on Amazon.

8. Saving Fish From Drowning // Amy Tan

Written by the author of The Joy Luck Club, this 2005 novel is about Bibi Chen, a San Franciscan art dealer who plans to lead a dozen friends on a cultural tour of China and Myanmar. Although Chen dies mysteriously before the trip starts, her friends take the trip anyway—accidentally desecrating China’s Stone Bell Temple and later (unknowingly) getting kidnapped by a tribe in Myanmar. Chen’s spirit accompanies her friends on their misadventures, which include plenty of slapstick moments and humorous misunderstandings.

Buy it on Amazon.

9. The Phantom Tollbooth // Norton Juster

The cover of 'The Phantom Tollbooth'
Amazon

This delightful children’s book about the power of imagination combines adventure, fantasy, and tons of clever puns. Since 1961, kids have loved reading about Milo’s journey to the Kingdom of Wisdom. He literally jumps to Conclusions (an island), meets a watchdog named Tock, and helps restore Rhyme and Reason (two princesses) to power. After his adventures, Milo realizes that regular life can be exciting, not boring.

Buy it on Amazon.

10. The Tao Te Ching // Lao-Tzu

In the Tao Te Ching, ancient Chinese philosopher Lao-Tzu presents the fundamental ideas behind the philosophy and religion of Taoism. Divided into 81 short sections, the book tells readers how to live virtuously and in accordance with Tao, or the way that everything flows and happens. While supposedly written in the 6th century B.C.E., some scholars argue that multiple authors contributed to the text over hundreds of years.

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11. Blonde // Joyce Carol Oates

In Blonde (2000), Joyce Carol Oates offers a fictional account of Marilyn Monroe’s thoughts and feelings throughout her life. The chronological account begins with Monroe’s childhood as Norma Jeane Baker, details her life as a young woman, and explores her experiences as “Marilyn” in the 1950s. Although Oates obscures the names of some characters, readers can easily determine when she’s referring to famous figures such as Joe DiMaggio, Arthur Miller, and former President John F. Kennedy.

Buy it on Amazon.

12. Treasure Island // Robert Louis Stevenson

The cover of 'Treasure Island'
Amazon

This 1882 adventure novel, about treasure hunters and a pirate mutiny, is hard to put down. Robert Louis Stevenson pits the teenaged protagonist, Jim Hawkins, against the greedy, one-legged pirate named Long John Silver. Though geared for kids, Treasure Island has inspired countless films, TV shows, plays, songs, and games—as well as our popular idea of pirates in general.

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13. The Elements of Style // William Strunk, Jr. And E.B. White

Reading and writing are intimately connected, and The Elements of Style is the preeminent modern guide for writing well. In 1918, Cornell English professor William Strunk Jr. wrote a list of rules for grammar and composition, which was published in 1920. Around four decades later, his former student E.B. White—author of Stuart Little and Charlotte’s Web—revised and expanded upon his professor’s book. The guidebook, which instructs writers to omit needless words and use the active rather than passive voice, is a joy to read.

Buy it on Amazon.

14. Charlie and the Chocolate Factory // Roald Dahl

The cover of 'Charlie and the Chocolate Factory'
Amazon

Rivers of chocolate, magical gum, and Oompa-Loompas—it’s all in this beloved Roald Dahl classic from 1964. After poor Charlie Bucket gets one of five golden tickets, he wins the chance to tour chocolatier Willy Wonka’s magical factory. After the other four children on the tour disrespect Wonka’s rules, Wonka reveals that Charlie has won the entire factory.

Buy it on Amazon.

15. Love in the Time of Cholera // Gabriel García Márquez

Love in the Time of Cholera (1985) follows Florentino and Fermina, a pair of young lovers who live in an unnamed Caribbean port city. Because Fermina’s father disapproves of their relationship, he moves with his daughter to another city. Although the lovers write letters to each other, Fermina decides to marry another man, Dr. Juvenal Urbino. More than 50 years later, Urbino dies and Florentino proclaims that his love for Fermina had never ended.

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16. I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings // Maya Angelou

The cover of 'I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings'
Amazon

I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings, Maya Angelou’s first autobiography, has become a classic since it was first published in 1969. Angelou brings readers from her childhood in Arkansas and Missouri to her adulthood in California, sharing her traumatic experiences of abandonment, rape, and racism. She also shares her discovery and love of William Shakespeare’s works, revealing the transformative and healing power of books.

Buy it on Amazon.

17. Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance // Robert Pirsig

Beloved by millions of readers since its publication in 1974, Zen and The Art of Motorcycle Maintenance is part road trip story and part philosophical text. As a man narrates his motorcycle trip with his 11-year-old son from Minnesota to California, he also discusses philosophical ideas about how we live and how we can balance romanticism and rationalism.

Buy it on Amazon.

18. Frankenstein // Mary Shelley

Mary Shelley was only 20 years old in 1818 when Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus was first published (anonymously). The Gothic novel describes how scientist Victor Frankenstein brings a monster to life, and the aftermath of his decision to interfere with nature. The book has become a classic thanks to its innovative fusion of horror, science fiction, and Romanticism. Some consider it the first science fiction story ever written.

Buy it on Amazon.

19. The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe // C.S. Lewis

The cover of 'The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe'
Amazon

The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe is the first of seven books in C.S. Lewis’s series The Chronicles of Narnia. Published in 1950, the fantasy novel follows the four Pevensie siblings, who, during World War II in England, discover a portal to a magical land called Narnia. There they encounter talking animals, a perpetual winter, and an evil White Witch.

Buy it on Amazon.

20. The Old Man and the Sea // Ernest Hemingway

Since 1952, The Old Man and the Sea has captivated readers with its story of Santiago, an aging Cuban fisherman who hasn’t caught a fish in 84 days. After a long tussle with a huge marlin, Santiago finally kills the fish. Unfortunately, sharks devour most of the marlin’s carcass by the time Santiago gets home. The classic tale makes readers think about pain, suffering, empathy, futility, and growing old.

Buy it on Amazon.

21. The Westing Game // Ellen Raskin

The cover of 'The Westing Game'
Amazon

Readers of all ages love The Westing Game (1978) for its quirky characters, clever wordplay, and enthralling mystery. After multimillionaire Sam Westing dies, his will stipulates that his fortune will go to the person who figures out who killed him. An eclectic group of 16 characters, who are all residents of an apartment building on Lake Michigan, decipher clues to unravel the mystery.

Buy it on Amazon.

22. The Happiness Project // Gretchen Rubin

Published in 2009, The Happiness Project is a self-help book that takes readers through a year in the life of author Gretchen Rubin and her experiment to become a happier person. Each month, she makes tiny tweaks in her daily habits, focusing on everything from how to boost her energy to how to make more time for friends. Besides sharing her own experiences, Rubin also cites plenty of scientific studies on happiness and quotes writers and scholars who have written on the topic.

Buy it on Amazon.

23. Little Men // Louisa May Alcott

The cover of 'Little Men'
Amazon

Little Women was so successful that Louisa May Alcott wrote a sequel—Little Men (1871) picks up the March family saga with Jo, who is now married to Professor Friedrich Bhaer. While raising their two sons, Jo and her husband run Plumfield, a boarding school for boys. Fans of Little Women will be happy to know that characters from the novel (including Teddy and Amy) appear in the sequel.

Buy it on Amazon.

24. Sleeping, Dreaming, and Dying // The Dalai Lama

Bibliophiles will love Sleeping, Dreaming, And Dying: An Exploration of Consciousness (1997). The Dalai Lama engages in a fascinating conversation with Western scientists about neuroscience, psychology, and consciousness. The scientists and His Holiness discuss everything from lucid dreaming and near-death experiences to meditation and Buddhist philosophy.

Buy it on Amazon.

25. The Devil Finds Work // James Baldwin

James Baldwin is mostly remembered for his essays and novels, but he also applied his talent for keen social criticism to film. In The Devil Finds Work (1976), Baldwin shares his views on the role of race in popular films such as The Exorcist (1973) and Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner (1967). He eloquently discusses everything from racial subtext and the idea of movies as an escape to the larger impact that films have on society.

Buy it on Amazon.

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A version of this article first ran in 2017.

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