In November 2007, the National Endowment for the Arts published a report titled To Read or Not To Read: A Question of National Consequence . Building on its earlier research, in Reading at Risk: A Survey of Literary Reading in America (2004), the 2007 report provided, in the words of NEA chairman Dana Gioia, a reliable and comprehensive overview of American reading today. Its findings are devastating. Teenagers are increasingly tossing aside books for other activities and a startling percentage of young adults (nearly 60 percent) dont bother to pick the books up in the first place.
The report concludes:
Ultimately, reading skills and early habits of leisure reading may come to occupy the same relationship to artistic, cultural, and civic progress as basic science skills have had to technological breakthroughs. Just as fundamental knowledge of math and science has enabled practical innovations in everyday life, so might young readers of today yield unforeseen benefits for health policy, business, law, the social sciences, arts and culture, journalism, and civic planning. But why limit their accomplishments to the humanities? In an era of specialization, the imaginative and analytical skills unlocked by reading can fuel a brisker dialogue between the arts and sciences. As this report has attempted to show, reading often and reading well are prerequisites for achievement in areas far beyond literature and literacy alone.
Youll sometimes hear students exclaim that they love, say, Jane Austen, but, all too often, that love is based on a single book or (even more frequently) on one or another largely inaccurate film adaptation. Generations are rising who can only see Austen through the lens of schmaltzy Hollywood films¯cannot see, say, Charles Dickens at all, unless they have a taste for gloriously interminable BBC dramas.
This distaste for Dickens is usually based on a single text, most often A Tale of Two Cities , Hard Times , or Great Expectations . What is this source of this plague of prejudice? Can it be that (with the exception of the established yuletide phenomenon that is The Christmas Carol ¯a story that persistently comes back like one of Jacob Marleys fellow spirits, sometimes to haunt, sometimes to delight) Boz no longer has the power to entertain?
The answer has to be no , but this is a problem with two insidious sources¯television and the classroom, and the latter is far more dangerous. When modern technology provides a wealth of new and exciting entertainment, novels are readily transformed into the new media. We are graced (or cursed) with one or another adaptation of the novels on a nearly annual basis. On the other hand, there are generations of young people today, raised on thirty-minute cartoons, who could not survive a six-hour Dickensian parade put on by the BBC, much less the book itself. But this is peripheral: The delights and dangers of modern technology demand a balancing act for us all, whether Dickens is concerned or not.
The true stage for the anti-Dickens crusade is the classroom. The uninspired pessimism of high-school teachers blights the young receptacle, already numbed into thinking that the Harry Potter series is quality literature.
Jack thinks Sydney Carton is a sap, and Jill doesnt have the foggiest idea what is wrong with Miss Havisham. They agree, however, that the assignment is boring, and they wait longingly for the day when they can escape the class altogether. And so the teachers say, No one really likes Dickens but we have to read him. Or Dickens is depressing, but that was because all the Victorians were repressed. Or Dickens was paid by the word, thats why he wrote such long books. (The last is not only an appalling misunderstanding of Dickensian prose, it is apocryphal. Dickens was paid by the installment, not by the word¯a fact that does illuminate much of the structure of the novels.)
Meanwhile, in the universities, Dickens and his characters are accused of homoeroticism, incest, misogyny, and so on: an infamous parade of unseemly sins. Beyond these torrid projections, Dickens is condemned as too sentimental for cynical modernity, too preachy for tolerant modernity, and too prosy for innocent undergraduate eyes. Young students are distracted with Woolf and Joyce and oversexed interpretations of Shakespeare.
That is, if they bother with Shakespeare at all. The decline of authentic Shakespeare studies was excellently researched in the American Council of Trustees and Alumnis 2007 The Vanishing Shakespeare , providing a list of horrifying details: At most colleges and universities, Shakespeare courses can be taken as electives to fulfill broad historical distribution requirements . . . . And yet, as a quick glance at existing requirements shows, Shakespeare holds no favored place. A course on Shakespeare may count the same as the study of Renaissance food (Swarthmore College), Renaissance things (University of Chicago), and medieval writing about flogging, stabbing, and rape (University of Pennsylvania).
Its interesting to note that (at least anecdotally) the primary response of tenured professors and graduate students to this report was indignation that any organization would dare to question their choice of class topic or focus. A great many degrees (completed or in-process) were flashed around, and absolute ownership of the classics¯to study or shelve¯was pompously reasserted.
In this anti-classics context, one of the most distressing aspects of the Philistine onslaught is that the criticism leveled at Dickens does not make use of what would prove to be even more damning. Large portions of Martin Chuzzlewit are mind-numbingly boring and were so even to the Victorians. Little Dorrit is maudlin and dissatisfying. Esthers narration in Bleak House has driven readers to hair-rending distraction. Why arent these mentioned? Because these entrenched critics (old or, especially, young) have not bothered to read the novels that would grant this ammunition.
With all of this said, there are three basic rules that must be established before one encounters Dickens. First, one ought not to read a three-volume novel expecting it to be short. Second, one should not expect the deep, dark secret of a Victorian thriller to be anything less than utterly predictable (this caution is reiterated, in particular, to a group of young students of my acquaintance who seriously expected the deep, dark secret of Wilkie Collins Woman in White to be that the villain was really a werewolf). And third, one should not read Dickens hoping he will not introduce a cast of thousands.
How then should Dickens be taught? As with all of literature, he must be taught with affection, with enthusiasm, with patience, and with a taste for eccentricity. A more fitting introduction for young minds might be found in the reckless youthful energy of Nicholas Nickleby , with its hero who descends to fisticuffs in defense of a downtrodden drudge or attacks strangers in defense of his sisters virtue. It is perhaps easier to relate to the trials and tribulations of young Oliver Twist than to sympathize with Pip. The death of Nancy is far more dramatically accessible than that of Sydney Carton, and with the former there is the advantage of a cast of colorful, evocative characters¯Fagin, Bill Sikes, Nancy, Jack Dawkins, Charlie Bates, and, above all, Bulls-Eye, unite to make the novel one of Dickens greatest achievements.
We need to recover the lost art of enjoyment¯enjoyment that is not simply mind-numbing intoxication or drooling appreciation of a television hero. Through the classics, a proper appreciation for virtue (classical and moral) may be effectively cultivated.
In other words, students should put down Pride and Prejudice and read Mansfield Park instead. Teachers should so infuse their students with sympathy for little Paul Dombey that they bawl their eyes out at his death. They should learn together to value the full depth of the character of Fagin¯not as a kindly old man (as some film studios have attempted to portray him), but as a creature of deliberate, calculating wickedness. And they should empathize with Nicholas Nicklebys righteous indignation at the infamous treatment of his beloved sister, Kate.
When they are finished, they may be able to appreciate Mr. Darcy for his full worth, and the character of Sydney Carton will become ever more wonderful. They may even feel the spontaneous urge to pick up Our Mutual Friend on a quiet Sunday afternoon.
Eleanor Bourg Donlon, a Dappled Things assistant editor, has a masters degree in English from the University of Virginia. Her website is www.eleanorbourgdonlon.com .