First of all, why bother to read Dickens at all?
Because he was one of the greatest novelists who ever lived. His novels feature really ingenious plotting; a vast range of exceptionally colourful and memorable characters of all kinds – many of them eccentric and humorous (although there are some great villains too); interesting insights into life and human nature; many funny episodes; a breath-taking prose style; memorable expressions and witty comments.
Traditionally, Dickens is not seen as an easy read, and in some ways he isn’t. Unfortunately, though, many people have been introduced to Dickens at school when they were too young to understand his prose style and this has had the effect of turning them off Dickens for life. Because children are quite familiar with simplified versions of stories such as Oliver Twist, A Christmas Carol and Great Expectations, there is a mistaken perception that these books were written for children, but they remain very much adult novels. The original full-length versions are far too dificult for children yet, if you return to Dickens’s books as an adult, you’ll find them much more readable than they were when you were fourteen!
Nevertheless, it’s worth bearing in mind that in the twenty-first century we’re saturated with instant messages and easy readability, but Dickens does have to be worked at a bit – not something we’re used to. But if you’ve never managed to enjoy Dickens before but you’re prepared to make the effort now, he more than repays the toil you put in .
Seven Steps to Getting the Best from Dickens
1. Start the your chosen story when you’re fresh, not too tired and have plenty of time to concentrate on getting “into” the characters and story set-up. Turn off or shut out all other possible distractions. (There weren’t nearly so many of these in Victorian times!)
2. Start by reading one of Dickens’s shorter novels. Most of them are very long: Bleak House, Little Dorrit and Pickwick Papers, for instance, are all weighty tomes. Great Expectations is often chosen as a first Dickens reading experience, because it has such memorable characters and such a well-crafted and intriguing plot. David Copperfield is another favourite for beginners, as it more or less tells David’s life story and is therefore a fairly linear plot. However, my favourite to start with would be Hard Times. It is not one of his great novels, but it’s short and its characters and plot are easier to follow than some of the other novels.
3. There’s no doubt that Dickens excels at big sentences and long words. The sentences – if you take a deep breath at the beginning then keep going – are not as hard as you think they will be. If there are a few big words you don’t know, just ignore them and read on. (Of course, if you love new words, you can always make a quick note of them and look them up later. You never know when “pusillanimous” or “acquiescent” might come in handy!)
4. Skip the occasional silly bits. Every now and then there’s a passage, or even a whole chapter, which has been written to appeal to Victorian sentiments and which we find hard to relate to now. Usually these aren’t scenes which are vital to the plot and they can be left out.
5. Use appropriate websites for character lists which can be looked at or even printed off to remind you who’s who. There are also chapter summaries if you would find these useful. For instance, this site is helpful: charlesdickenspage.com Another option is to get hold of a student’s guide to the book you’re reading, because this will also contain plot lists and chapter summaries.
6. Watch film or TV versions of the book – but be wary of this and ask yourself whether you really want to watch this before you’ve read the book. I’ve always found it more enjoyable to read the book first.
7. Find a friend who will read the book at the same time as you so you can discuss it together.
And when you’ve finished:
Relish the feeling that you’ve lifted yourself out of a reading rut and enjoyed something which was a bit of a challenge (though hopefully not such a challenge as you thought it would be.)
Then decide which Dickens novel you’ll be reading next!
You might also like to visit the Dickens museum in London: http://www.dickensmuseum.com/