::Literate Blather::
Thursday, June 15, 2006
Reading Dickens

"There is everything in Dickens."- Jules Verne

I remember two distinct emotions when I finished reading David Copperfield: disappointment and the warm satisfaction that accompanies accomplishment. The disappointment was because the novel is all encompassing – a time machine back to Victorian England. You can see the dark, drafty manor houses, smell the burning tallow of candles, taste the mulled port, and even feel boney fingers of Uriah Heep as he gives you his cold, clammy handshake. So when it ended, I was saddened, which is always an excellent sign that you’ve just read a damn fine book.

The feeling of accomplishment was more complex. At first, I thought it had to do with the length of the book. I read the Signet Classic paperback and it was a hefty 870 pages long; dense enough to be used as a doorstop. But I’ve read many long books in my reading life – and many more difficult ones (The Sound and the Fury comes to mind). No, it was something else and it took me a few days to work through it.

The accomplishment came from a simple fact: No one reads Dickens anymore.

Strike that. Some people still read Dickens. There are a few Dickens societies with spotty memberships (filled, I imagine, with gray-haired men with facial hair, tweed jackets, and Sherlockian pipes), professors of literature, a few eccentric bibliophiles, and – thank God – hundreds of thousands of high school freshmen and sophomores who are forced to read A Tale of Two Cities or Great Expectations every year. (These young men and women may be the sole reason why Cliff Notes continues to thrive). They may also be the reason why anyone even publishes Dickens anymore.

So what I meant to say was: No one mainstream reads Dickens anymore. Go to any chain bookstore in any mall in America and you might find a forgotten shelf called “Classics” in some dark corner of the place with a couple of moldy copies of Oliver Twist drowning in dust (probably squeezed next to Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice and Mark Twain's Huckleberry Finn.)

Ask any reader when they last picked up Dickens and you may be surprised. It could be never or a long, long time ago -- when they were in high school reading Oliver Twist, A Tale of Two Cities, A Christmas Carol or Great Expectations. Titles like Bleak House, Martin Chuzzlewit and Dombey and Son have fallen out of favor (although a 2005 BBC television series based on Bleak House renewed interest in the book with the bibliophiles).

So the question is why? Why is Dickens so rejected these days? One problem lies with those hundreds of thousands of high schoolers. When you force feed high school students books they aren’t properly educated enough to enjoy, you foster a life-long hatred of books - all books. The goal of high school English should be to foster a love of reading first. Start with books kids might like to read - like Tolkien, for example. Don't introduce challenging authors like Dickens and Shakespeare right off the bat. It's like teaching kids to play baseball by having them try to hit Pedro Martinez on the first day of practice. You end up with frustrated kids - who don't like baseball. I still can't read Romeo and Juliet because it was jammed down my throat by a militant English teacher in high school.

The second problem for today's readers is plot. Dickens has too many and, often times, they don't intersect with each other. He has a tendency to get lost. Modern readers like to zip down the freeway at breakneck speeds toward a stated and well marked destination and Dickens is a forgotten dirt road that winds through the country side and really doesn't get anywhere until it gets there. His novels are grand escapades stretching on for years – sometimes decades – featuring dozens and dozens of characters (there are more than 850 different characters in the Pickwick Papers alone). Some of the characters are gigantic – larger than the books where they came to life: Scrooge, Tiny Tim, the Artful Dodger, Fagin, Little Nell, Pip, Sydney Carton, and Mr. Pickwick himself. That, too, can be a distraction. So it takes a long time to wade through one of Dickens’ books and that can be maddening for modern readers.

But Dickens is one of the few writers who capture life – a stunning literary achievement. Reading Dickens is to experience humanity. He deserves to be read – to be experienced. You meet people in Dickens - not characters. When you finish one of his novels, you feel rewarded - like you have recieved a very special gift.

The best advice I’ve ever read about reading Dickens comes from the brilliant mind of Norrie Epstein, author of The Friendly Dickens (a must-have for any true Dickens fan). Epstein wrote: “Take a Zen approach: the destination doesn’t matter, it’s the journey that counts. Savior each word; don't rush. And don't try to think logicially! You are entering a different universe, where people are the same and yet not the same. And remember that truth is not always literal.”

Good, sound advice and words that I will keep close in mind as I dust off my copy of The Old Curiosity Shop.

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