Alternative approaches to Dickens

Students of literature know that Charles Dickens wrote his novels to appear in segments. The Pickwick Papers, released in 19 monthly installments in 1836-37, was the book that popularized serial publication and propelled Dickens to fame.

Serialization withered away when production of whole books became cheap and easy.

Now, almost two centuries after Pickwick, interest in serial publication is reviving. As technology has changed people’s reading habits, and as time spent reading books has declined, publishers are looking to electronic serialization as a way to encourage book reading.

Amazon sells Kindle Serials, books published in episodes. Serial Books offers installments in a “season,” each installment understandable as a stand-alone or part of the whole. DailyLit emails portions of books to readers on a schedule they’ve chosen. Mousehold Words recreates the experience of reading classic novels, including Dickens’s Hard Times and Dombey and Son, in their original serial format on a tablet, smartphone, e-reader, or computer.

Usually an old-fashioned paperback is the only inducement I need to read, but after attempting a self-study of Dickens, I’m appreciating the idea of reading him piecemeal.

A couple of things had persuaded me to read or reread Dickens’s major novels in chronological order of publication: My book group chose to read Bleak House. I learned around the same time that journalist and author Anna Quindlen’s favorite novelist is Dickens. There are few people whose judgment I’d trust more than Anna Quindlen’s.

While reading Bleak House for book group, I started my own project with Oliver Twist because it’s the earliest of Dickens’s novels, not counting The Pickwick Papers as a true novel. Next came David Copperfield, Dickens’s own favorite among his novels.

About midway through David Copperfield, I realized I was skipping long passages of description and feeling not so eager to read a half-dozen more Dickens novels in a row.

I felt chagrined. What’s wrong with someone who considers herself a lover of fiction but doesn’t appreciate one of the greatest novelists in the English language?

Thinking about it, I realized that the issue was reading Dickens without a break. When I read Dickens before, it had been a single novel, not several in a row.

There is much I appreciate about Dickens — his colorful characters, comic voice, dialogue, atmosphere, and advocacy for children and the poor. I don’t even mind his contrived plots, irrational coincidences, and sentimentality.

But the excesses of his writing wore me down. There are too many details, overblown language, sentences that seem to run on forever, characters and incidents not necessary to the plot. Yes, wordiness was typical of Victorian writers, and maybe I’d feel the same way about others if I attempted to read one after another of their books. But I doubt it.

It made me feel better to find out there are literate people who agree. Stephen Moss of the London newspaper The Guardian wrote that he gave away all but two of his Dickens books. “I had to come to find Dickens unreadable: all that word-spinning and subplotting, all those crazy coincidences,” he said. “Energy in abundance, for sure, but taken to wild excess.”

Londoner Joanna Godfree, holder of an English degree from Oxford and 35 years a librarian, said that it took a stage performance for Dickens’s voice to “finally cast its spell on me.”

Reading her comment, I knew what I wanted to do. I wouldn’t abandon Dickens’s novels, I’d watch them in performance. With his vivid descriptions of people and places and his masterful dialogue, Dickens is ideal for dramatization.

The BBC has dramatized nearly all the novels, some of them more than once, and the productions are available on DVD from libraries.

So far I’ve watched Little Dorrit, David Copperfield, Great Expectations, and Bleak House (even though I did finish reading Bleak House for book group). More DVDs are available at the Chicago Public Library: Dombey and Son, Hard Times, Martin Chuzzlewit, Our Mutual Friend, The Mystery of Edwin Drood, Nicholas Nickleby, Oliver Twist, and The Old Curiosity Shop. If I choose to keep going, I’ll be more immersed in Dickens than I intended with the reading project.

And if I try again someday to read Dickens, it might be interesting to approach his novels as he wrote them: in installments.

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  • Hi Marianne,

    I loved reading your article about reading Dickens. I am the President of The Chicago Dickens Fellowship, a 40 member branch of The International Dickens Fellowship. I couldn't agree with you more on the difficulty there can be in trying to read through a Dickens novel end to end.

    In my group, we select a single novel each year to read and discuss. Since we meet four times a year, we break the novels down into quarters, usually based on how the original 20 parts were broken down. This makes it much easier to digest the novels, and it also makes for much better discussions of the novels.

    I would welcome you to come to one of our meetings and see if it might entice you to get reacquainted with Dickens. Our next meeting is on October 23rd. You can see more on our website at I hope you can join us!

  • I'm glad you were able to find the post. It's interesting that you can break a book into quarters. My book group originally was going to split Bleak House into thirds, but then some of us wanted to keep reading to find out what happens (contradicts my theme, doesn't it?). Thank you for the invite. I'll let you know if I can make it. Marianne

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