Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Why Dickens?

My aspiring-author son approached me on the run-up to dinner last night. “Remember when you told me not to describe a bunch of stuff unless it was important to the mood or the plot?” he asked. 

“Yeah . . .” I had a funny feeling about this.

“And you said  to use interesting verbs and not so many adverbs.”

“Right . . .” And I knew all that was about to be thrown up into my face, in a way I couldn’t yet predict.

“Well,” he said, “My teacher is making me read GREAT EXPECTATIONS by CHARLES DICKENS!”

Twisting in my socks, I launched my arguments. I explained it was an older style of writing. I tried to point out Dickens’ genius in describing characters, illustrate the historical benefits of reading his work, but it was all for naught. Like so many other people I know, my son is staunchly anti-Dickens. At last, the adults in the room had to fall back on the old, “Everyone should read it!” and, “If you don’t read it, you won’t know what other people are talking about!” Cultural literacy used as a last, desperate assault against the forces of modernity.

There is a good argument to be had for, “Why do I have to read something I don’t like?” These days we have over 500 television channels. If a show comes on we don’t like, there are several more that we might. Music is accessible and varied. There are things to read everywhere—in magazines, on the internet, free, not free, electronic and printed. An endless array of choices. 

So why read Dickens if you don’t have to (of course, in my son's case, he has to)?

I don’t have an answer for that. I can only present this:

                Ours was the marsh country, down by the river, within, as the river wound, twenty miles of the sea. My first most vivid and broad impression of the identity of things seems to me to have been gained on a memorable raw afternoon towards evening. At such a time I found out for certain that this bleak place overgrown with nettles was the churchyard; and that Philip Pirrip, late of this parish, and also Georgiana wife of the above, were dead and buried; and that Alexander, Bartholomew, Abraham, Tobias, and Roger, infant children of the aforesaid, were also dead and buried; and that the dark flat wilderness beyond the churchyard, intersected with dikes and mounds and gates, with scattered cattle feeding on it, was the marshes; and that the low leaden line beyond that was the river; and that the distant savage lair from which the wind was rushing was the sea; and that the small bundle of shivers growing afraid of it all and beginning to cry, was Pip.

To me, that’s a great, distinctive style of writing; to my son, it’s a sentence that goes on too long.

Your mileage may vary.


  1. Why Dickens?

    Point one: I can trace my lineage of descent through his sister. ;)

    Dickens is not for everyone in the modern age, I must admit, but I think he is brilliant.

    If you haven't read it, Maz, I strongly recommend the novel DROOD, by Dan Simmons.

  2. You know how big my TBR pile is ? :) Adding ...

    He's family for you--cool. I am cousin to the Alcotts, about 12 times removed ...

  3. I can read Dickens and appreciate his work for what it is, but I've always been something of Poe-girl, myself.

    There is a story I heard from a scholar who studied Poe's life. He spoke of Poe meeting Dickens. Dickens was distraught because his pet raven had died, and that inspired Poe to make the animal in his poem The Raven a raven. ;-)

    I tried reading Drood, Paul, but not being a Dickens fan, I'm ashamed to say I lost interest. I've set it aside for now and will go back to it eventually.