Saturday, September 19, 2009

Voluntary readers of Dickens: an endangered species?

Little Dorrit

Matthew MacFadyen as Arthur Clennam (Little Dorrit)

I've been flipping through a book I found at the library today - The Friendly Dickens, a sort of "Dickens for Dummies". In putting this book together, the author interviewed numerous critics, actors, and Dickens aficionados. Something that seemed to be coming through in some of the interviews, and even some of the author's own comments, was the belief that ardent fans of Dickens' novels are becoming a rare breed. The consensus seemed to be that the majority of devoted readers of Dickens are 50+, and that unless children and young adults are made to read Dickens in school, "they'll probably never read him at all" (see p. 369).

Little Dorrit

Claire Foy as Amy Dorrit (Little Dorrit)

Is this true to your own experience? Is this what you have observed? I don't have a lot of friends my own age who I know in person - the majority of my friends are online friends! And since internet users tend to congregate into different groups depending on their interests, most of my online friends are bookworms like myself - many of them are also Dickens fans. - Therefore, even though it may seem to me that a lot of younger people are still reading and enjoying Dickens today, this probably isn't an accurate reflection of the rest of society. . .

Bleak House

This scene always makes me cry. :-( (Bleak House)

It deeply saddens me to think that most of my generation may never read any Dickens or any of the other great novelists of the 19th century for their own pleasure. Just the thought of it makes me want to go out and "preach the gospel" of Dickens, trying to get as many people as possible to read his books! 

Do young adults feel that Dickens is irrelevant? Boring? Too long-winded? Honestly, I don't think children and teenagers have any trouble getting through long books if they have the inclination - just look at the Harry Potter books, for instance!

Bleak House

Bleak House 2005

Do bear in mind that the book I mentioned was published in 1998 - just before the recent slew of Dickens adaptations began, starting with Our Mutual Friend, and culminating in the BBC's two immensely popular series, Bleak House and Little Dorrit. Hopefully, all of these new Dickens adaptations will encourage people who normally wouldn't bother with Dickens to give his books a try. (I know this has certainly been the case with me!)

Pride and Prejudice 1995

Darcymania. . . 

One only has to look at the 1995 adapation of Pride and Prejudice and the Austen revival that followed to see how just one really good TV or movie adaptation can have a domino effect on popular culture, bringing the works of a particular author into the spotlight. Do you think Bleak House has done this for Dickens? Are people (particular young adults and teens) finally starting to realise that Dickens' stories and characters are still very relevant (not to mention entertaining!) for us today? 


Autumn said...

I adore Dickens!!!!!

Siminy said...

Same here! Dickens is awesome.

Harry Potter compared with Dickens... Wouldn't there be a rather large difference? I've never read Harry Potter, but from what I've gathered from other resources, it's pretty straight forward, even boring in parts because you know exactly how this will happen.
Now Dickens, is completely different. He puts how many characters into one book? And often leaves them out of the story for such a long time that when they come back you think they are new. (until, of course, they show a knowledgeable account of some part) he uses a such a different style of English that to people who view texting as real English could very well think he was writing in another language. He could very well be for all they know.

Yes, I would say that the movies are showing people that Dicken's stories and characters are still very relevant today, even if they don't read the books they still watch the movies and love them!

The Editrix said...

Simone - I haven't read the Harry Potter novels, but I can imagine there would be a big difference in language from Dickens' books! I'm sure it would be a lot easier for your average 12-year-old to get through a HP book rather than a Dickens!

I guess I was just trying to make the point that the mere length of Dickens' books shouldn't put people off. Not reading a book because of its length is a pretty lame excuse IMO. . . but then, I'm a bookworm, so I'm biassed. . . Someone might say they don't have the time to read a certain book, but I think it really boils down to a matter of priorities. If you truly want to read a book, you can usually make time to read it! Even if it's only 20-30 minutes or so before you go to bed, or while you're eating breakfast, etc.

And that's a good point you made, about people enjoying TV adaptations of Dickens, even if they don't have the time or inclination to read the book. Bravo to the BBC for continuing to churn out first rate adaptations of Dickens. I know nothing can replace the books, but at least it means people can still enjoy Dickens' marvellous characters and stories.

Miss Jen said...

Oh... *sigh*
We cry at the same part in Bleak House! :)

Love~ Jen

Enbrethiliel said...


Great topic, Elise! =) First off, I agree that if people really want to read a book, they will, regardless of length of apparent difficulty--though it helps if they're already "relaxed" around the book, if you take my meaning.

I voluntarily read both A Christmas Carol and Oliver Twist when I was in high school, and had a good time with each book. I think that knowing the plots in advance (thanks to a heavily abridged "Popular Children's Classics" for Oliver and numerous adaptations for Carol) kept me from being too intimidated. As for length: I was very happy to learn that Oliver was originally published one chapter at a time. Somehow that made it seem "easier."

A year later, I tried Hard Times and was quite put off. =( Then I didn't read Charles Dickens again until I was assigned Great Expectations in uni. I remember it being all right . . . but not spectacular enough for me to keep at Dickens.

So I'm not very attracted to Dickens at the moment, I'm afraid. Every time I consider reading something by him, I get the sense that it will be heavy and depressing; and I'd rather read something lighter and more "irreverent" when it comes to human failings. (Hence my current read: Jane Austen's Mansfield Park!)

The Editrix said...

Oooh, Mansfield Park! Have you read it before?

Great Expectations is the Dickens novel that I'm reading right now.

Embrethiliel, let me say that I can really identify with where you are right now with Dickens! I read A Christmas Carol ages ago, and enjoyed it. A couple of years later, I tried The Old Curiosity Shop, but couldn't get into it at all.

Then recently I watched Our Mutual Friend. . . then I read the book. . . and the rest is history! :P (BTW, I think you'd really like OMF - it's extremely funny at times, even though it's quite a dark story, and there's a lot of brilliant social satire.)

If I can offer one piece of advice when it comes to approaching Dickens, it would be: watch the movie first, then read the book. I find this helps me enormously - it gets me interested in the story, and it gives me a familiarity with the plot and characters, so that I don't feel nearly as intimidated as I would otherwise when starting the book.

Our Mutual Friend is the best Dickens adaptation I've seen, with Little Dorrit and Bleak House not too far behind. Great Expectations 1999 (with Ioan Gruffudd and Justine Waddell) is also pretty good.

Enbrethiliel said...


No, I have not yet Mansfield Park before! I put this reading off for many years because I wanted there to be at least one Jane Austen novel in my future (if that makes sense!), but I finally caved in this week and started it.

I just love it so far. Of course, I feel sorry for Fanny and want to pour a bucket of water over Mrs. Norris' head . . . but that's part of the fun, isn't it? My bookmark is in the middle of the scene at the Sotherton chapel. (Oooooooh, that Miss Crawford!)

Thanks for the advice on Dickens. It does make sense, especially since he seems to have a whole universe of characters in a single novel. I'll keep an eye out for Our Mutual Friend; it's not a title I'm very familiar with.

The Editrix said...

Mansfield Park is one of my favourite Austen novels - and it's arguably her best book, in a lot of ways. Enjoy! :-D And let me know what you think of it when you finish it!

Anonymous said...

First of all I found your blog about a month ago and love it! It's nice to find someone who shares the same beliefs!

I enjoy Dickens very much, though sometimes it takes a few times through the book to figure out exactly what is going on. :)

As for why young adults don't (or can't) read Dickens, it is probably because in today's society it seems that everything is for instant gratification, TV shows are in ten to fifteen minute sections with thirty minutes of five minute commercials in between! (or so it seems. We don't have TV, just past experience from babysitting)

The Editrix said...

First of all, it's lovely to hear from you, anonymous! :-)

As for why young adults don't (or can't) read Dickens, it is probably because in today's society it seems that everything is for instant gratification, TV shows are in ten to fifteen minute sections with thirty minutes of five minute commercials in between!

I was actually thinking about this last night. My opinion is - if young adults and teens don't have the attention span or patience to get through a Dickens (or any other classic novel), then too bad! They don't deserve to enjoy the richness and the brilliance of these books. They don't know what they're missing out on.

It still makes me sad, though.

How to get a modern-day teen to unplug from the internet/tv/mobile phone/ipod and READ A BOOK. That's is the question. :P But if they don't want to, there isn't really any way to make them read.

Love of books is like any other kind of love - it can't be forced.

Theresa said...

to my shame I haven't read much Dickens. I think his work is a bit like Shakespeare's in that people think it is more difficult to understand than it really is. In the end the only hard part is actually getting around to reading the thing, not the wording or way the book is put together.

Mind you, he does have a much more... languid... style of writing than most authors. It's as if he expects you to have the time [possibly while you're 'sitting in your powdering cap and nightgown] to sit around and hear the back story to some random character. Our lifestyle's are quite different to what they would have been if we lived back in his day!

Enbrethiliel said...


If you want to get a modern day teen to unplug, you'll have to start much younger! My little brothers are not teenagers yet but are so used to TV that books are like something from another universe! =(

I really think the future readers of the world--not merely people who know how to read, but people who love reading and like the challenge of good prose and poetry--will mostly come from the homeschool community.

silent_librarian said...

I am not surprised if those of the younger generations read less and less of Dickens, or any other classic author for that matter. I also hang out around bookworms who love the same books as I do and have a love for Dickens, but with the way our public school system is today, I would be surprised if anyone even knows who Charles Dickens ever was. It is depressing to see how things have degenerated.

True, there is a surge of Austen popularity (I wouldn't say there is a surge for Dickens, though), but it is mostly because of the films. How many of our generation, teenagers/young adults, actually go out and READ Pride and Prejudice or Sense and Sensibility? I doubt there are many at all.

As for me, personally, I am not a Dickens fan. I think I have been scared by Tale of Two Cities which I did not enjoy, hehe, but after watching Our Mutual Friend, Little Dorrit, and Nicolas Nickelby, I feel that I could give Dickens another try. I would say that the BBC TV Series helps very much in keeping any interest alive in the power of those wonderful classics.

There is no doubt, however, Charles Dickens was a genius writer and had a clever way with words.

The Editrix said...

Embrethiliel and Silent Librarian - interesting comments!

I really think the future readers of the world--not merely people who know how to read, but people who love reading and like the challenge of good prose and poetry--will mostly come from the homeschool community.

Now that's an interesting thought! You know, pretty much all of my "real-life" (i.e., not internet) girlfriends are homeschooled. We're all bookworms. Funnily enough, most of the homeschooled girls that I know (or know of) seem to love reading.

I don't really know many public-schooled teens, but I often have trouble identifying with those who I do know. This might sound cliche, but it's almost like we're from "different worlds". I'll ask my non-homeschooled friend if she likes books - "Nah, I don't read any books. I just watch the movie instead!" I suppose that's typical of most teens today.

Nibs said...

Most of the people I associate with are like me, and enjoy Dickens; however, very few of these are still teens.

I think that everyone hears horror stories of Dickens - "it's so long!" "The girls are unrealistic!" "It relies on coincidence!" "IT'S SO LONG!!"

But I feel it's really quite relevant if you actually got into the story. For instance, take one of the most criticized aspects of any Dickens novel (spoiler): Agnes Wickfield's love for David Copperfield. She loves him, she's his best friend, but he goes off and falls in love with another girl. Isn't that the plot of like every Taylor Swift song?

If teens could get a better mindset about what they'd be reading, I think they'd be surprised at how interesting Dickens is.

ibmiller said...

See, before 2008, I was a fierce hater of Dickens. I loved A Christmas Carol, of course, and didn't mind Oliver Twist, but A Tale of Two Cities made me furious at the blatant idiocy, fragmentation, and pathetic characters.

Then came Little Dorrit, which a UK friend told me "Andrew Davies is doing another long Dickens" (I'd devoured Bleak House for Davies and the actors, and enjoyed it, though it didn't make me want to read the book, as I felt the structure was extremely weak). I watched the promo and was instantly hooked. I found the first few episodes, and after an hour and a half, immediately reserved the book from the library. For the next five weeks, I played tag with the series, sometimes reading ahead, sometimes watching - until finally I sat down and blazed through the last 2-300 pages of the book in a night.

After that, there was no hope. I went from a virulent critics of Dickens to a passionate fan (though I still am not a huge fan of Two Cities). I watched Our Mutual Friend, bought a huge chunk of books (Bleak House, Our Mutual Friend, Nicholas Nickleby), and have gotten at least halfway through most of them (I'm in the middle of school, so they're on hold till summer, but I am very much looking forward to them). Two weeks ago, I read Hard Times for school, and instantly adored it. Though the female characters are frustrating and I think artistically flawed, Dickens' skill and sympathy won me over, and I tore through it with great excitement and love.

So, I know many people my age have no clue what they're missing with Dickens - but I think the films are having an effect. They certainly did on me, and I have a couple of friends who are doing the same!

Anonymous said...

I must admit that I have never been a fan of Dickens, having attemped reading a number of his books and not being successful!
But in time I am certain I shall go back to them, but for now I do find them something of a chore to get through.

I thoroughly enjoy all the television adaptions, but often, in general when I see a television or film adaption of a book, I am not always inclined to them go and read it, especially as some books are better seen visually.

Regarding young people's problem with a teenager myself, I would have to say that it is probably the 'uncool' stigma attached to reading Dickens. We recently read Wuthering Heights in my English class, which I enjoyed immensely, but I was hesitant to profess this to my class mates, as many did not share my opinion!