Why Charles Dickens?

Reading David C

A few weeks ago, I committed to explaining why I’ve been reading so much Charles Dickens lately. Here is where I make good on that commitment:

It started over at Books, Ink (the books website I edit), where we’re doing the Gilmore Girls Reading Challenge. If you’ve never heard of it, the objective is to read all 339 books referenced on the Gilmore Girls series over the course of its seven seasons.

My brilliant contributing editor, Jessica Collins, suggested undertaking the project collaboratively. Since the show and Books, Ink are both based in Connecticut and Jessica and I are both fans of the show – and books and, like the eponymous Gilmore girls, coffee – well, let’s just say the challenge felt like the perfect fit.

For the Books, Ink version of the challenge, we feature one book from the list per week, and whoever read it writes a short piece about his or her experience of it. So far, we’re 18 books in, and the best parts have been sharing the challenge with fellow book lovers (local readers are invited to participate) and being inspired to read books that have been languishing on my reading list.

This is where Charles Dickens comes in. When I first looked over the list, the books that caught my attention because I’d always meant to read them (but hadn’t) were mostly classics. Specifically, “David Copperfield” and “Little Dorrit,” two of six Dickens novels on the challenge list.

The funny thing is, for the last 15 years, I’ve read Dickens every year, in December, in the form of “A Christmas Carol.” I continue to reread this heartening novel because I continue to find new ways to think about and be inspired by it. The values the novel advocates – “charity, mercy, forebearance, and benevolence,” as expressed by Marley’s ghost – are the values I strive to live, never as successfully as I’d like to. Rereading the novel reconnects me to my intentions, reminds me to work harder at who I want to be. And not for nothing, it’s a joy to revisit the intricately imagined world Dickens creates. It’s a bit like visiting with a beloved elderly relative whose stories bring to life a world I never want to forget existed.

Looking at the list of Dickens novels I’ve never read set me to wondering: If I get so much out of reading Dickens, then why had I yet to read “David Copperfield” or “Little Dorrit” (among others)? And why haven’t I reread “Hard Times” or “Oliver Twist”? And come to think of it, why have I not made time to read “The Pickwick Papers,” “The Old Curiosity Shop” or the unfinished “The Mystery of Edwin Drood”?

I’ll tell you at least one reason why: They’re really long. As in, in some cases, 900 plus pages long. Realistically, this requires, at minimum, a month-long commitment. I speak from experience having spent June reading “David Copperfield.” One month reading one novel. Just. One. Novel.*

I’m breaking out into a cold sweat thinking about how many books behind I’ll get devoting an entire month to just one novel. But I also understand that, for me, that may be exactly the point: Stop worrying about quantity. Stop worrying about what I won’t or can’t or didn’t. Stop looking ahead. Be present in this moment, with this book that I’m reading right now, and soak it in, the better to remember it by.

That may, for me, be the most important lesson of all, because if I have one fatal flaw that continually stymies me, it’s impatience (or, in Dickensian terms, forbearance). And what better way to teach myself patience** than to sit myself down and read those very long books, the beautiful and dense ones, the ones that will take me an age to finish, no matter how much I push myself to read them as quickly as possible.

The ones that remind, even compel, me to slow down, settle in, and trust the journey.

*I’ve actually discovered a caveat to this, which I will explain in a future post.

**Well, I’m sure there are many, but this is still a pretty good way.

2 Replies to “Why Charles Dickens?”

  1. Dickens is one of my favorites and I’ve read many of his books. They’re worth the time despite their (often daunting) page length. Which one are you reading now?

    1. Hi Kim! Couldn’t agree more. It’s so hard even to pick a favorite because each has its own amazing moments. I’ve been working on The Old Curiosity Shop for a while … a long while, actually. The problem is I know it’s going to break my heart, which is slowing me down. So glad you commented here as it’s inspiring me to keep pushing through it.

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