Six Reasons Why You Should Read Dickens

The Arts



As I start packing up my books in preparation to moving house (just for six months) I try once more to reduce my library to the bare essentials. There’s no point in keeping dead books, ones you have enjoyed but to which you will never return, and so mine is a living library. I make sure there is no book in it that I do not pick up again with pleasure.

Even so, that’s of little help when it comes to Charles Dickens. The man is a library on his own. That is to say, most of what you need to know about literature (not all of it brilliant, but most of it far more brilliant than anyone else writing in the English language) will be found in his books. So as I weed out bits of Kipling or Victor Hugo (‘The Art of Being a Grandfather’, anyone?) I keep all of Dickens – how can you not? So here are a few simple reasons why he’s worth returning to – or turning to, if you’ve never read him at all.

1. There’s a world to be rediscovered in his work

And you never seem to reach the end of it. The books are so heavily populated that they teem with a life of their own, with incidents, characters, capricious behaviour, arguments, laughter, fights, revels, everything that makes life then and life now worth living.

2. His characters are people you know

Although his works start in the 1830s and continue for the next forty years, and capture a world that’s hard to imagine now, his characters could be people you see on the bus or in your office, at home or in the street. The minor ones are lightly sketched in, the major ones are rounded with good and bad, as complex and extraordinary as real people.

3. He’s much more readable than you think

Because they were designed to be published in weekly parts, Dickens write in small bites that can be savoured individually. His stories are dauntingly large but at their route they contain a journey, with heroes (usually a bit boring), secondary characters, (fantastic) and a multitude of walk-ones (rich and wonderful). Just like life. Keep notes if you have to, to remind yourself where you’re up to. Treat each chapter as a short story if you like – it doesn’t matter.


4. His stories are timeless

When you turn on TV or open a book, how often do you think that the author has simply watched a lot of other stuff and not actually experienced anything? The worst example is Quentin Tarantino, who seems never to have spoken to a real person in his life, except for some brief parts of ‘Pulp Fiction’. And the best example is Dickens, who strolled around the city of London collecting the observations that would serve as inspiration for his future work. It’s as if everyone in London is trying to share their stories with him, and he’s listening and writing it all down as fast as he can.

5. He’s very, very funny

In an early chapter of ‘Our Mutual Friend’, a very dark novel from his mature late period, Dickens stages a dinner party for a couple who have come into money, but who are too common for polite society. Watch as their suddenly acquired ‘friends’ creep around them and you realise you’re seeing a social comedy of the highest order. Or look in on Mrs Jellyby in ‘Bleak House’, too busy with her charitable good works for Africa to notice that one of her own many children has got his head stuck in some railings. Dickens is a master at controlling our distance from the matter at hand in order to evoke laughter.

6. He invented the detective novel and the London novel

Dickens on London is always haunting. We’re told that Little Dorrit and Maggie ‘had shrunk past homeless people, lying coiled up in nooks. They had run from drunkards. They had started from slinking men, whistling and signing to one another at bye corners, or running away at full speed.’ The streets come alive before our eyes. We see rich and poor, kind and evil, and feel fear and love for the characters.

As for the detective novel (and it must be said that Edgar Allan Poe got there first with a short story) Dickens was working his way towards the first whodunnit. He had already introduced Inspector Bucket in ‘Bleak House’, and died writing ‘The Mystery of Edwin Drood’, a real whodunnit, the solution for which has been hunted ever since.

‘Dickensian’, the BBC drama series that mixes together all of Dickens’ greatest characters in new stories, is but the latest incarnation of his talent.

11 comments on “Six Reasons Why You Should Read Dickens”

  1. Jo W says:

    Hear,hear to all that,Chris. We enjoyed Dickensian, trying to put the characters names into the right books and now I’m enjoying Bleak House,which jumps about from story to story just as a serial should. Dickens has always been good for ‘dipping into’ for a chapter or two,on this i pad. Never boring,but you do need to concentrate when following the way around the Circumlocution Office in Little Dorritt. It’s just like modern day local government.

  2. Roger says:

    Except that Dickens is easily and freely available on the internet. I’d advise you to keep the books that are in copyright or not available through the ‘net and get rid of the ones you can’t just download.

  3. agatha hamilton says:

    Absolutely right. Have got all Dickens in the Oxford illustrated editions and re-read favourites (‘Our Mutual Friend’, ‘Little Dorrit’, ‘Bleak House’, ‘Great Expectations’) always finding new details. Not convinced by Roger’s recommendation of internet, though. I put the illustrated version of ‘Bleak House’ on my Kindle, and was a bit surprised to see the frontispiece saying ‘First published in 16 s******g parts’. Think it must have been scanned in and amended by some poor, bored wage slave somewhere. The asterisks are mine – in case delicate sensibilities might be offended. Word appeared in full on Kindle version.

  4. Matthew Barnes says:

    There is a GoodReads/YouTube community read-along of Our Mutual Friend starting in May. They are going to read it the same way the Victorians would have, 4 chapters a month.Yes, it will take a year to read, but just imagine the experience!

  5. Matt says:

    I enjoyed Dickensian but was slightly disappointed that the Humour was missing. I like his Christmas stories best.

  6. agatha hamilton says:

    Correction: have just checked on Kindle. It was twenty s******g parts.

  7. Vivienne says:

    I feel I often encounter William Guppy in those young men in the City, and I think of Caddie Jellyby every time I get my fingers stained with ink.

    I don’t feel Bleak House jumps about from story to story, but is like a spiral – you start on the outer edge, but are drawn in tighter and tighter until all the elements reach its very inclusive conclusion. Genius!

  8. Leslie says:

    What I love about Dickens is the mix of characters, of silliness, warmth, fierce political critique, individual adventure, horror, melodrama–his breadth makes him, in my mind, a real inheritor of Shakespeare, putting so many different points of view into every story. Maybe I’m just missing a particular thread of contemporary novels, but I can’t think of anyone who builds such complex social worlds while insisting on their realism. There’s such a premium on inward looking narrative on the one hand (which I also enjoy in a different way). Writers with a Dickensian breadth, on the other hand, seem to veer into the speculative or fabulist or fantasy.

  9. Helen Martin says:

    Try reading Mr. Pickwick and Death, 800 pages of 1840s London. It gives you a different view of Mr. Dickens, a view with which one is free to disagree, but it certainly provides a wonderful view of the city in his day. I have a set of Dickens which I haven’t dipped into much lately because the type is rather small and my eyes, even after surgery, are not great with fine print. Always enjoy what I have read, though.

  10. jan says:

    I think of Dickens going on his long, long walks to fight off his depression (he obviously twigged about the release of endorphins making you feel better a long time before the penny dropped elsewhere)
    A friend of mine is doing a thesis about Dickens and some psychiatrist’s discuss the fact that he might have actually been bipolar rather than just surrerring from depression. I think this comes out in the books the bad stuff being truly awful (i remember as a youngster reading the little books they used to publish extracts from his full novels i used to skip pages and in extremis scrub the horrible bits out with hairpins!! Honestly some of it really used to scare me) and yet other parts of his work just teem with people enjoying life and are well upbeat.

  11. shirley Steans Beaumont says:

    no matter what interest you with dickens writings, it will apply some where in each of our lives . He helped me to understand the life my Irish ancestor lived,who else could write and bring alive, through books and plays, the squalor, the poverty and its suffering, in the slums of St Giles London.It revealed to me the life my ancestor like many thousands of other Irish orphans living in the slums of London.It must have been a great day to celebrate for the group of 56 Irish needle women he farwelled 1852 on the ship” Euphrates ” to the new life they were given.

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