Six Reasons Why You Should Read Dickens
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.