Recently I’ve (sort of) wanted to do something about my lifelong avoidance of Charles Dickens. Dickens has always seemed to me one of those writers in the literature-as-torture category, surpassed maybe only by Jane Austen or one of those Bronte people. I never read Dickens in high school or college, and I’ve somehow been able to avoid him even though I’ve plied my trade as an English teacher for a long time.
But a student gave me a nice old edition of Dickens’s book about America. I’d like to read that, but I feel like I don’t know him well enough to appreciate it. And then I read Deborah Hopkinson’s picture book A Boy Called Dickens and thought it was absolutely terrific. It also made me want to know more about Charles Dickens. If only I didn’t have to read those god-awful books in order to accomplish it. And then I was reading A Christmas Carol out loud to one of my daughters (her choice – I have smart kids) and noticed just how finely crafted those sentences are. Dickens was calling to me, but I’m currently reading half a dozen or so other books, with roughly another hundred on deck.
Then two smart book people, Donalyn Miller and Katherine Sokolowski, wrote compelling blog posts about the book gap challenge phenomenon. This is the idea that even if we are voracious readers, we may have some areas that we avoid or overlook. I have plenty of gaps in my reading: science, westerns, fantasy, European history, and much more. As Donalyn said in her post, “No one who reads should apologize for their preferences and reading experiences, but we can aspire to stretch ourselves or fill any perceived deficits in our reading lives.” Katherine told how she tries to gently stretch her students to read books a little out of their comfort zones: “All I ask of him, of all my readers, is that they try something else now and then. I tell them, how will you know if you like it if you don’t try? Same thing I tell my sons about vegetables, come to think of it.” Those wise teachers seemed to be nicely telling me, “Get yourself over to some Charles frickin’ Dickens!” But I’ve got this new Springsteen bio I want to read, and Grant gave me The Sisters Brothers and it looks really good, and I want to read a couple of books by people who are coming to Writers Week. Sorry, Charlie.
Then Jane Kise sent me an invitation to join a new Goodreads group: Dickens as Writ. The idea is to read a Charles Dickens work slowly over the course of several months or longer, just as Dickens’s original readers would have experienced his newest works published in periodic installments. Charles Dickens in small doses? That sounded like something I might be able to swallow.
So, Ok. Ok Ok Ok. I can take a hint. I’m in with A Tale of Two Cities. I read a chapter today, and here is my first Goodreads post about it:
I read the first chapter and tried to keep in mind the publication subscription schedule. The first few lines are as well-known as anything in literature, but I was surprised to find that not only was it “the best of times” and “the worst of times,” the setting was several other kinds of paradox too. As Dickens leisurely compares his time to the time of the story, his readers must have been nodding their heads in agreement as he described the tempestuous political and moral atmosphere in his England as a point of comparison with the time of the story several decades earlier.
Dickens is a master stylist. I’m impressed with how he uses commas and semicolons to control the way his sentences unfold with precisely the right emphasis and pace.
This first chapter has no characters. I predict (and hope) that will change soon.
I can’t help but feel like a clueless freshman as I read this. Am I noticing the right stuff?
So, I’m reading Charles Dickens with a (reasonably) open mind. If you would like to be invited to the Dickens as Writ group, please let me know. Here are Jane’s rules for the group:
1. Stick to Dickens.
2. Read no more than a chapter a week.
3. If you fall behind, no problem. Just post as you read.
4. Let’s stay respectful. No Scrooges needed 🙂
The Book Gap Challenge now has its own Twitter hashtag: #bookgapchallenge
I wish you a year of good reading. Do it however you want to do it.