Do I Want To Read… Charles Dickens?

I haven’t done a ‘Do I Want To Read’ post for sometime but seeing as I know I will be moving when this goes up, there really are occasional bonuses to being able to schedule a post if it all goes right, and as it will also be his 200th Birthday (I could go on about what would happen if we celebrated everyone’s 200th but I won’t, oh I did) I thought maybe it would be appropriate to ask you all about Mr Dickens and what you would recommend this reader do with the ‘Dickens difficulty’ he has.

Happy 200th Birthday Charlie-Boy!

My mother, no less, has said on many occasional that I shouldn’t really call myself a reader if I haven’t read Dickens, or maybe it was Hardy… or maybe Austen (I have failed at all three in the main). I tried to argue this one out and failed, she is an English teacher after all. We have also come to snarky sneery banter about Shakespeare; I hated him at school and have been unable to shift this phobia. Anyway let’s discuss my ‘Dickens dilemma’ further, for it is his birthday and should be all about him.

I have tried and failed with Dickens on four occasions now. ‘Oliver Twist’ was first, I thought being a tale for children it might be the easiest way in, along with the fact it was one of the shortest. The 22 year old me just didn’t like it, remember he wasn’t the best reader though – or certainly not a patient reader shall we say, I have no idea why now but I simply didn’t enjoy it and so probably promptly moved onto an Agatha Christie.

The following year came Andrew Davies adaptation of ‘Bleak House’ which being made by the BBC and starring Gillian Anderson (I am of the X Files generation, what can I say) enticed me to watching the whole 15 episodes which I really enjoyed and thought ‘ooh I must read the book’. I started it and thought it was ok, then I got lost with all the characters and plot (which seemed so much more graspable in the adaptation, enough said) and these dreaded words ‘well the TV show was much better’ were actually muttered out of my mouth. I think dear reader I might just have heard you muter ‘heathen’ under your breath. Rude.

Moving in with a very well read family member in December of 2010 who was also, very important for this post, is a huge Dickens fan I found my interest peaked again. ‘Great Expectations’ was the recommendation, apparently his most accessible work. If I remember rightly I think Polly of Novel Insights and I were considering reading it that Christmas, in fact knowing our Christmas Classics pact she probably did, I picked it up, got on with it ok but wasn’t held enough to read it right through. My bookish magpie eyes kept seeing other newer shiny reading gems. We parted ways about page 80-90, we haven’t faced each other since.

This Christmas we had another adaptation of Dickens ‘Great Expectations’ on the BBC, and again with Gillian Anderson once more I was drawn into the show. But I decided to hold off watching and try to read the book instead. Until I saw someone on twitter give away the fiery ending and so I thought ‘what’s the point now?’ I soon settled down with some of his ghostly stories instead but Scrabble, Spite & Malice or (the most likely) a Snowball cocktail lead me away from them.

Yet I do still want to try him, so oh wise readers of this blog… where should I start?

(And will anyone else please own up to not having ever finished a Dickens so I don’t feel such a literary loner? I have also noticed I didn’t mention the Queen yesterday, but frankly 60 years ruling a country vs. me moving house, which is bigger news? Ha!)


Filed under Do I Want To Read?, Random Savidgeness

70 responses to “Do I Want To Read… Charles Dickens?

  1. Jen

    Hi Simon,
    My favorites are Nicholas Nikelby and David Copperfield. I started but didn’t finish: Bleak House, A Tale of Two Cities and Oliver Twist. (And I don’t feel badly about it either!) 😉

  2. I’d go with Great Expectations, it’s my favourite Dickens story (after watching a lot of adaptations) and the only one I’ve actually read. I’ve picked up a few others but never really got into them (maybe I should give them another try).

  3. Here’s a suggestion. Try “reading” them on audio CD’s (Books on Tape). While stuck in a two-hour trafic jam, you may find the story of little Oliver Twist more interesting than talk radio or worn-out top 40 stations.

  4. Susan E

    You can always save Dickens for later (or even much later). …Maybe something like The Mystery of Edwin Drood might appeal. Its unfinished story leads to fun speculation. My own favorites are David Copperfield, Bleak House, A Christmas Carol and probably Great Expectations. Little Dorrit, too.

  5. I like the idea of reading Dickens because since childhood I’ve had this slightly ridiculous belief that his books are what ‘Real Readers’ enjoy but every time I try it ends badly. I have never made it past the first hundred pages of any of his books, despite many, many attempts. I’ve pretty much made my peace with the fact that Dickens and I will never be friends and think I’ll leave it at that.

    • Hahaha, Claire we have had the same thoughts with not being ‘Real Readers’ until you have read her. I am thinking maybe he is an author for my retirement, even though that is many years off… maybe that is why, ha.

  6. Try Pickwick..if that doesn’t work give up.

  7. Sarah Littlefear

    I started reading Great Expectations many moons ago (probably when the TV adaptation was on years ago starring Ioan Gruffudd) and never finished it, and I have never attempted another Dickens since. I am quite happy to admit that he is just not my cup of tea, and I don’t feel that I am missing out on anything by not reading him. (I’ve never read any Hardy, and Austen and I don’t get on either, although I love the Pride and Prejudice TV adaptation starring Colin Firth!)

    • You see I don’t ‘really’ feel like I am missing out, for example how many other author are there out there I havent tried and don’t think about. Yet because he is Dickens and an institution I feel more torn about it – I think thats the essence of it actually.

  8. I feel that Great Expectations and David Copperfield are the most readable of Dickens books. I read (and loved) DC when I was a teen, after all. Maybe that’s the one to try? Or perhaps you should go with A Christmas Carol which is also quite short.

  9. I’ve only read A Christmas Carol, which I enjoyed but even this short I found a little heavy. Dickens is a long read even with his shorter stories. I was saying on another blog earlier I would enjoy Dickens if I could read it as the Victorians did, a series. I think that would really hold my interest.

    • Interesting you found it short but still heavy. I wonder if because he was paid by the word they are heavier works? Call me cynical but if I was being paid per word I would make every sentence become at least a paragraph or two. Ha!

      • Haha! I probably would too. I would say that we are clearly not as moral as Mr Dickens, but I’ve seen the size of Little Dorrit, so I think the playing field is level once more..

  10. Funnily enough – actually, probably not so funny seeing as it is his 200th anniversary and there will be a lot of Dickens stuff going on this year – I am reading David Copperfield along with Boof of Book Whisperer fame. I have read maybe 3 Dickens prior to this and am finding this one to be the most readable so far. (Have to admit to hating the Christmas books, sorry – why is it we feel the need to apologies if we ‘criticise’ Charles Dickens?) I think you should maybe give Oliver Twist another go – Pip is annoying but his story is interesting and some of the other characters are just fascinating and fabulous. Good luck with your dilemma…

  11. I would start with “Great Expectations”. It’s my favourite and as I”ve read about this book, the most readable, the most accessable and probably the best. You can make some research before or after. It was very interesting what Dickens planned and placed in “Great Expectations”, what different characters mean, even their names, dickens’s doubles and so on.

  12. Kate

    Simon, I never finished Bleak House; it was an assigned book in college. Last year, I made my book group read A Tale of Two Cities and Great Expectations. Oprah had picked them as some of her final books on her TV program which she ended. I liked both books; maybe now that I am older and wise I had more patience for Mr. Dickens. I think I want to pick one more to read this year, but like you, am not sure which way to go.

    • Bleak House is so massive though, it scares me if I am honest Kate. Oprah helping Dickens out… who would have thought it. Hopefully the suggestions that people on here have given will prove helpful with where you might head next.

  13. Give it a couple of years and have another go, Dickens isn’t going anywhere. I’m enjoying Great Expectations at the moment but it’s taken me a long time to come round to the him.

  14. I still have only read A Christmas Carol, which I don’t really consider “reading Dickens.”

    I hope to get to Great Expectations this year, though!

  15. No worries. I’m an English teacher, but I’m no fan of Dickens. No one has revoked my English teaching/book blogging card yet. I’ve read Great Expectations, A Tale of Two Cities, David Copperfield, and Oliver Twist. None changed my opinion. 🙂

  16. Oh Simon! You’re definitely not alone. Dickens wasn’t a great writer; he was a great observer. His novels aren’t masterpieces of literature but they are amazing vessels of social history. If you try and look at them from that perspective, maybe you might enjoy them a little more? People seem to expect Tolstoyan genius from Dickens but he was more the Dan Brown of his day in my opinion!! Trashy but enjoyable nonetheless.

    I’ve read a fair few of his books and my favourite was probably David Copperfield but I also really like Great Expectations. Both are good for beginners of Dickens I think.

    • Oh Rachel its good to know you have some similar thoughts to me. Though admittedly you have actually read some of his, unlike little old me.

      I love you calling him Dan Brown of his day thats tickled me no end.

  17. I’ll own up to not having finished a Dickens book. Funny though, I’m finding myself fascinated by all the articles talking about what an influence he’s had on literature and wider culture. WinstonsDad’s done a nice post on this:
    I don’t think you have to read Dickens to have a good sense of his work! Well, at least that’s what I’m telling myself to ease the guilt of having Dickens-free bookshelves.

  18. Roz

    I would try A Tale of Two Cities. I’ve read little Dickens (Great Expectations, Bleak House are the only other ones that spring to mind). But I was totally transfixed by A Take of Two Cities. Indeed, I was at university at the time and working in a bar. I persuaded my bar manager to let me finish it off…and could do little but weep as I poured pints thereafter.

    I agree with the suggestion about audiobooks. I struggled with Trollope until last year when I started listening to him – and I have now worked my way through all of one series and most of another in an addicted fashion.

    • The only thing is Roz, that I know the Tale of Two Cities is set in the French Revolution, something I have to admit I have never been to fussed about. Is that bad? I wonder if the mixture might not work for me.

  19. I was in your position just a few short months ago! Hated Dickens and wanted nothing to do with him, but felt almost obligated to read one of his novels to be considered a ‘real reader’. Well, I finished Great Expectations a few days ago and absolutely adored it! I think you should wait until the right time – you will know when the time comes for Dickens and you’ll know which book is the one to start with. Reading is magical that way 🙂

  20. I don’t think you need to have read him to be a “real” reader, but I would try A Tale of Two Cities. It was a hard read for me but well worth it. I liked Oliver Twist too, though, so I don’t know…no shame in trying and deciding you just don’t like it!

    • Oliver and The Artful Dodger sound a bit precocious to me, I am wondering if thats why I have always steered clear. I would imagine being a kind of ‘crossover’ book it would be quite a good way in.

  21. My mother and I were just discussing the other day some of the painful books we’d had to read as part of school assignments. I think it was very cruel of the school board to include David Copperfield as part of the curriculum for 11 yr olds. And I’m very grateful that instead of Richard the Second we had to study the Scarlet Pimpernal in 10th.

    The reason I’m not particularly fond of Dickens is because his novels are too depressing for me.But then, the whole purpose of these books was to make people aware of what things were like during the Industrial Revolution. Nevertheless, I still enjoyed reading Great Expectations and A Christmas Carol quite a bit. I enjoyed watching the musical Oliver Twist more than the book though.

  22. The first Dickens I read was A Tale of Two Cities and it totally converted me, all through university I was his biggest hater! I enjoy him now, but my heart will always secretly belong to Wilkie Collins!

  23. David

    The only Dickens I’ve read is “A Christmas Carol” which I’ve read at least half a dozen times, but as for the rest? ‘Fraid not – I don’t even like Dickens adaptions on the telly, something about him just holds no appeal. Hardy and Austen on the other hand I’ve read and loved.

    • I don’t midn the adaptations, as I said Bleak House completely won me over. Hardy I would like to try and read at some point, blimey thinking of all the ‘greats’ I have missed depresses me.

  24. Linda Wilkins

    David Copperfield – hands down. If you don’t want to read the book first, check out the 1969 TV movie (it’s on DVD now). It’s by far the best version, and it was this version that got me interested in the book. Some great old actors and enough gloom to make it a really good Dickens adaptation. Not perfect, but I still think it the best. In fact, this just reminded me of how much I liked it, so I’m off to Amazon to purchase the DVD.

  25. Mark

    Personally, I found Great Expectations very readable. Would also highly recommend David Copperfield as a fairly easy introduction. I have to confess to giving up on Our Mutual Friend. By the way, the bi-centennial celebrations at Highgate Cemetery the day before yesterday were a literary lover’s dream: Sara Waters, Howard Jacobson, Audrey Niffenegger, Tracey Chevalier & Lucinda Hawksley all in attendance The readings by Simon Callow & Joanna Lumley of various Dickens novels were also nicely staged at various points in the cemetery e.g. his parents & Catherine/Dora’s graves. A really special day.

  26. Oliver Twist, bleck. Love tv adapatations, do not enjoy Oliver in the book (and he’s around all the time, wouldn’t you know). I recommend David Copperfield (looooong, but so good) or A Christmas Carol (everyone knows the story and it’s short).

    ‘I could go on about what would happen if we celebrated everyone’s 200th but I won’t’ – do this, do this, pleeeeease.

  27. I’ll admit, I’ve only ever read ‘A Christmas Carol’, but I did receive a load of Dickens for Christmas, so I can understand the reluctance: each book I received was approximately the size of a brick.

  28. Well, it’s perhaps the wrong time of year now but A Christmas Carol must be the most accessible, and a genuine love of mine. I really like Great Expectations, but it helps that I first read it as a teenager and got caught up in all the doomed romance. I liked (but struggled with) Our Mutual Friend, Oliver Twist and A Tale of Two Cities. I gave up on Bleak House and Pickwick Papers. I definitely think that you need to have a real chunk of time to devote to getting into his language.

  29. Bet

    My favorite is Nicholas Nickleby, and as some have suggested, you might want to try A Tale of Two Cities. I started Our Mutual Friend a few years ago because I love the BBC adaptation. Couldn’t get through it.

    I have certain authors that I have given up on: William Melville and JD Salinger. I am sometimes told that I can’t be a proper American if I haven’t read Moby Dick and Catcher in the Rye, but… oh, well, I guess I’m not. Not every classic writer is going to get along with every reader, so I wouldn’t worry about it.

  30. This post makes me feel slightly better about myself as a reader. You have plenty of recommendations from other commenters and I’m glad because I only wanted to say that I sympathize with you.

    I’ve tried Dickens numerous times (Oliver Twist, Great Expectations, A Tale of Two Cities, David Copperfield, A Christmas Carol) at various periods in my life but none of them seemed to be for me. Given all the hoopla over his birthday and the respect he has earned from some of my favorite people, I’ve decided to define my relationship with him with the phrase, “It’s not you, it’s me.”

    That said, I hope you find a Dickens work that you enjoy. Who knows? If I see a positive post from you in the future, I might try again too.

  31. I broke my Dickens phobia with Bleak House, which I loved. There were enough characters in the book, and enough funny little tidbits to keep me entertained. Although, I did finish David Copperfield, I was not as enchanted as some other readers. I am keen on trying Great Expectations sometime though. I made a half-baked effort during high school, but next time around, I hope I will be more patient.

    Never ever start with Nicholas Nickleby…

  32. Dominic Fitzgerald

    It depends a bit on what you want out of the book. Are you maybe getting a little lost in all the detail and descriptions and seemingly “excessive” words? If so, take a step back and think about it from the perspective that the over the top words are to be enjoyed and laughed at as eccentric gestures as opposed to dull descriptions. I was talking to a friend of mine tonight about how amusingly positioned some of the words are. For example in Hard Times in chapter 2 a boy is asked to define a horse and starts by saying, “Quadruped, Graminivorous…” hahahhaha I find that hilarious! the words are to be enjoyed and explored with joy. The descriptions of certain aspects of society are also so wonderful and so amazingly tragic. For an incredible piece of writing, try to find in Bleak House the description of night when Tulkinghorn is shot. about page 760 or something. AMAZING!! So wonderful. I would start with Great Ex and push through. Bleak House is so wonderful and such a great work of art. Enjoy Dickens!

  33. Neil Stuart

    I have read everything Dickens ever wrote, I started a year ago and although there are some writings I find very dificult to understand (i will go back and read them again) my admiration for his construction of the English language is unsapassed. Do try “Romance from the pen of Miss Alice Rainbird (aged 7)” a short story . It is a story you can adapt for your grandchildren by word of mouth. I still love fairy tales even at the age of 70 and I do not know of a child that doesn’t.

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