Happy Birthday, Mr Dickens!

There are, on this 200th birthday of Charles Dickens, some clear options when it comes to celebrating. Most of them involve reading.

For reading today I pulled from my shelf Great Expectations, for the same reason I did some years ago when I first read it: It’s squat enough to fit in my pocket. On my way home from work I’ll likely stop at the grocery and pick up some porter; it’s become something of a ritual that whenever I read Dickens I like to nurse a porter, black as coffee and strong. Before bed, I think I may read Evelyn Waugh’s wonderful short story, The Man Who Liked Dickens. (You could always listen to a classic dramatization of it here.)

Of course, if the evening proves less than ideal for reading, I may just watch The Unquiet Dead, the 2005 episode of Doctor Who that featured Mr Dickens rather prominently.

In today’s email from MercatorNet.com, Michael Cook writes,

Today, February 7, is the 200th anniversary of the birth of Charles Dickens. England is full of Dickens festivals and debates in the newspapers over whether 11-year-olds should be required to read his novels. His most recent biographer, Claire Tomalin, says that he is “amazingly relevant” – but feels that he is too demanding for schoolchildren. “Today’s children have very short attention-spans because they are being reared on dreadful TV programmes. They are not being educated for long attention-spans.”

Is this the problem? For the past decade schoolchildren have been devouring volumes of Harry Potter, books which swelled to incredible lengths. As far as I can see, Charles Dickens was probably the single most important literary influence upon the series, with its immense gallery of grotesque characters, lively language and convoluted plots.

Exuberance is the first of Dickens’ great virtues, an Olympian quality shared by few other writers in English. He created characters with the cheerful prodigality of a drunken sailor. A Dickensian sentence is bursting with joy at the wrestle with language. He is credited with scores upon scores of new words, like  flummox, rampage, butter-fingers, tousled, sawbones, casualty ward, footlights, dustbin, fingerless, squashed, seediness, Scrooge, Gradgrind, tousled and tintack.

The second is his anger. Most of his books are seething over the injustice dealt out to innocents by petty tyrants and the implacable law. He was unafraid to take sides, to be committed, to dream of a kind and juster world.

In fact, you cannot read Dickens – whether you are weeping or laughing or seething with indignation — and fail to feel that being alive is an exhilarating vocation to slay the giants of injustice. There is no lack of giants today: abortion, euthanasia, the scandal of starvation in a world of consumerist waste, overflowing prisons, the drugs trade… Would that today we had novelists who combined Dickens’ vitality with his righteous anger.

I tend to agree, generally, with Mr Cook’s conclusions. But the quality of Dickens which looms larger than his “amazing relevance” is his amazing readability. I have for years enjoyed Dickens’ ear for satire, his piercing social commentary, his rich descriptions of the human condition. But the reason I continue reading Dickens is he is very enjoyable–fun–to read; he’s the most winsome author I’ve met.

I understand the idea that school children, even high schoolers, won’t grasp Dickens. He’s too far beyond them, etc. I didn’t like Dickens in high school, and the reason I gave was he was “too wordy”. In truth, I never read him. It’s not that the 15-year-old mind can’t handle Dickens, it’s that it doesn’t want to. The problem isn’t that high schoolers aren’t ready for Dickens, it’s that they choose not to be ready. School-age children may have been trained by videogames and fun-based learning to have shorter attention spans, but I am skeptical that in such a short time millenia of brain evolution has been reversed and children cannot focus on a (very) slightly harder passage of literature. In other words, it seems a bad habit has been formed, not a sort of psycho-pathogen.

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