Hello, Charles Dickens

dickensRecently 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.

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8 Responses to Hello, Charles Dickens

  1. I tried starting A Tale of Two Cities about five times over the past twenty years. Every time I couldn’t make it past the first chapter. No characters, no real plot events… what the heck. I finally decided that I just needed to teach the book and that would force me to read it. Am I glad. The book reminds me of The Grapes of Wrath (one of my favorite books ever) and I too am impressed with Dickens syntactical skill. He really is a slow read and he rewards the chapter a week approach. Have fun.


  2. steveshann says:

    Hi Gary,
    An opportunity to read Nicholas Nickleby! I’d love an invitation to join.


  3. Gary, just for fun, check out Terry Pratchett’s Dodger (2011), in which the Artful Dodger from Oliver Twist is the protagonist and Dickens–the reporter!–is a secondary (and very appealing character). It’s a fun book, and it did a lot to rehabilitate Dickens for me as a person (of course, this is early Dickens, before he threw over this wife and multitude of children for the actress).

    I think teachers do a disservice foisting Great Expectations on ninth graders. I just re-read it (read #5, at least) with my Grade 9 son, and he and all his classmates HATED Pip–as I did on reads 1-3. At 46 now, I get his regretful tone much better. I had to age into Great Expectations–not Dickens’s fault at all. But 14 years olds. . . not the right crowd.


  4. Awesome. I did this with A Tale of Two Cities this year, both personally (I finished last week) and with my students (we’ll finish in May). I loved it! I also think it’s so important for us as teachers to experience books like this the same way our students do. It’s hard work, which is easy to forget when you’re talking about Gatsby for the 19th time.


  5. LMH says:

    I want to be in the group! I have loved Victorian novels since my junior English teacher foisted Bleak House on us and I couldn’t tell anyone else I liked it or risk social suicide. Then she tossed off Trollope’s name one day in class and I could not resist Barchester Towers. Someone finally gave me a copy of Middlemarch, and I was done for. Yes, characters are going to show up, and in a true Victorian control freak way, Dickens will lay out the symmetry that is a universe created by a benevolent (?) God. And it will be good.


  6. Jackie says:

    I have the same gap–I’ve only ever read “Great Expectations” and have tried and failed to read “Tale of Two Cities” as well!


  7. Pingback: Reading Dickens and other stuff « FortLeft

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