Monday, January 9, 2017

Epic Project 2017: Reading Dickens

Charles Dickens by Robert Ingpen
True confession of an English nerd: I have only read three novels by Charles Dickens—Great Expectations, A Christmas Carol and A Tale of Two Cities. I don’t want to give the impression I am unfamiliar with the works of Charles Dickens, girl, please. I have seen the Lionel Bart musical “Oliver!” a whole bunch of times in the late 80’s because my brother played an orphan in it, and also I watched the BBC adaptation of Bleak House twice, because I like the actress in the main role. But if you are counting actual books read, then yes, it’s just the three.

Now that I have been living in England for nearly fifteen years, this is starting to bother me. After all, many regard him as the greatest author of the Victorian era, a chronicler of social and environmental issues in an era that shaped so much of modern-day Britain and London in particular, the city I now call home. It is without question he created some of literature’s best-known characters, who were based on people he saw and knew walking alongside him on the street (any character that can stand up to being played by serious Shakespeareans as well as by Kermit the Frog is bulletproof in my book). Futhermore, his books remain incredibly popular, and when so many of his contemporaries have disappeared into the dusty basement corners of the library, I wanted to know why.

As an American, Dickens has always seemed opaque and twee to me. It’s not a world I can relate to, or people I understand. I can't picture the lives they lived, or the structures that held them in place. Yet, as I walk through London I know the streets are the same, many of the buildings also, and within the people I see shadows of many of those characters. As a resident of London, could I now relate to Dickens’ world? And if I could, what does Dickens' work tell me about life in modern Britain? The world he wrote about was a time of radical change, social upheaval and unthwarted ambition, which to be fair, sounds a lot like the world we know now. Are those stories still relevant? I suspect they are… But I can’t say for certain because as I said, I’ve only read the three books.

So my plan for 2017 is an epic one, to read the Dickens novels. All of them. In order. Ambitious? Probably, but it’s not like I’ve got anything else to do at this time (ha ha, funny joke!).

I started my epic project off by taking a little spin around the University of Santa Cruz’s masterful Dickens Project website, which seems a little more geared toward the serious academic Dickensian, but nevertheless is a treasure trove of information. Still, I’m not going to take the air out of this by turning it into a stodgy academic exercise; people read these books because they LOVED them, so I’m just going to read them without reading into them. Afterward I headed straight to the library to check out my first book, The Pickwick Papers, which was lolling about on the shelf (his first published collection was a compendium of short works called Sketches by Boz, which is available on Amazon, but not in my local library. I might come back to it at some point, but not just right now). By the way the copy I am now reading has been checked out fifteen times in the past five years, most recently in June. An hour later I’m thirty pages into it, and I can tell you it’s confirmed some of my worst fears: it’s about people and a society (a men's private club) that I know absolutely nothing about and have no access to, but I’m determined to nail it, partly because it features so prominently in one of my mostest favoritest books, Little Women. The book is due back to the library in three weeks, so I have my work cut out for me.

 If you’d like to join along in my epic 2017 reading project, please leave a comment or send an email and I’ll sort out some kind of regular round-ups. Not a book club—I hate book clubs—but it might be fun to check in and keep each other motivated.

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