Informal Poll: Reading Dickens

This piece, titled “Why Are We Still Reading Dickens?”, unleashed a flood of associations for me. I remembered my childhood hours in front of the television, glued to Once Upon A Classic. I remembered lugging my copy of David Copperfield to my second-grade classroom (yes, I was a nerd – early!). I remembered college readings of Dombey & Son (very well) and Our Mutual Friend (sadly, less well). I remembered A Christmas Carol in multiple formats: book, play, movie. I remembered reading a Dickens biography-for-children when I was still in elementary school, and I remembered visiting the Charles Dickens Museum in London during my first trip to that city.

And I remembered the disillusionment that filled me several years ago when I read a Listserv post from one of my Harvard colleagues to the effect that he needed help overcoming this challenge: he was designing an independent study with a student majoring in British history and literature, and he needed to cover Dickens without reading anything “inordinately long.” And I remembered how much worse I felt when I read our department chairman’s accommodating reply.

But this is not a rant about how English majors can get away these days without reading Dickens. Here’s what I want to know: Have you read anything by Charles Dickens? If so, which book(s)? And did you read his work “voluntarily,” or was your reading a result of an assignment (and if it was a result of an assignment, was it at the pre-college, college, or post-college/MFA level)? Please share, in comments.

Thanks for playing!

17 thoughts on “Informal Poll: Reading Dickens

  1. Stef says:

    I've read quite a bit of Dickens including, but not limited to, Oliver Twist, A Christmas Carol, David Copperfield, Bleak House, A Tale of Two Cities, and The Mystery of Edwin Drood.

    The majority of these books were required in high school and during my current undergrad degree, but I did pick up a few on my own, the voracious reader that I am.

    That being said, I cannot STAND Charles Dickens' writing. When I can tell that a person was paid by the word, it's a problem for me. Don't get me wrong. I understand why we still read him, and it's important that we do. Part of it is because he is our portal into another time… another world, in fact. But I do not like reading an entire chapter on the contents of a table. No, thank you.

  2. Jacob Chak says:

    I read "Great Expectations" as part of the IB curriculum during my freshmen year of high school. The work was not assigned voluntarily, yet I had no qualms about tackling the read. My impression was that we would dissect the book; its rich environments and complex characters, yet we probably only spent a few days going over it. It seemed that the novel was assigned simply because it was a classic. I've yet to reread the book going into my senior year at university even though I feel it would be significantly more relevant now.

  3. Erika D. says:

    How did I forget about Great Expectations and A Tale of Two Cities? Thanks for the reminders! I so agree, Jacob, that it's important to actually spend time digging into the books. I'm still pretty proud of the paper I wrote on Dombey & Son, which really required me to "dissect" the text in the context of the course I was taking at the time.

  4. Tommy says:

    David Copperfield for a colege english class on 18th-19th British Novels…by far my favorite text in a class that made us read Pamela and some other texts about virtue/arranged marriages/and the ruling class. I thought there was some real value in Dickens, especially in the way he approaches describing and naming characters.

  5. Matt says:

    Like many people, I read Great Expectations for a class in high school. I also read Bleak House for a 19th Century Lit. class in college. Outside of assigned reading, I've gone back to GE (one of my favorite books) and also read Our Mutual Friend, David Copperfield, and Hard Times.

    I don't understand complaints about the length of his works. To me, that's one of the great joys of reading him. Yes, his prose style leaves me cold in places as well, but he immerses readers in a world of his own creation and weaves together disparate plot lines in ways that would be ruined if the books were shorter.

  6. Monica Manning says:

    I have only read Oliver Twist, but I did read it in my early 20s (ages ago!) simply because I wanted to. I quite enjoyed it.

  7. Linda says:

    I first read Dickens in 7th grade when my advanced English class read "Great Expectations." I loved it then and it remains one of my favorites. I also habitually seek out classic versions of A Christmas Carol every Christmas season (no George C Scott for me, thank you very much). I suppose his writing is more plodding than our blogging/texting/excerpted sensibilities have come to like, but I cannot discredit the emotions he elicits and the imagination gone into his work. I have not read much of his other work (maybe because it is so daunting to look at the length of Bleak House, which I picked up in London but still haven't read!), no, not even A Tale of Two Cities. But I love what I have read. Oddly, an an English major, I was never required to read any of his material after that 7th grade class.

  8. Shannon Taylor says:

    Although I was a history major in college, I took almost enough English classes to earn a minor degree in it, but I was never required to read Dickens in college, nor was I required to read it in high school either. However, on my own, in my mid 20s I picked up Oliver Twist, A Tale of Two Cities, A Christmas Carol, and Great Expectations. I appreciate his prose style, and the beauty of his sentences. I think that in the age of short sentences and abbreviated words, Dickens should be required reading for all.

  9. Richard says:

    Dickens has always been close to my heart. I read “David Copperfield” as a child, on my own, and was hooked. “Great Expectations” is my favorite Dickens novel and I’ve read it a number of times, both in high school and college as assignments, and for pleasure as an adult. I wrote a senior thesis about comic novels which included “The Pickwick Papers.” Over the years I have read all but three or four of Dickens’s novels.

    In 2005, I was being treated for cancer at Mass General Hospital and was preparing for a stay of a few weeks. I brought “David Copperfield” and “Great Expectations” with me for comfort.

    When my new roommate saw what I was reading, we got into a long discussion of Dickens. We were both thrilled to have found each other and spent many hours talking about books and the value of a liberal education. My roommate was James O. Freedman, former president of Dartmouth and the University of Iowa.

  10. Anonymous says:

    Tale of Two Cities in eighth grade, assigned but completely captivating. Bleak House in a college course on the English novel. Great Expectations — one day, I hope.

  11. tinakoenig(AT)mindspring dot com says:

    The English Honors and AP English classes at my sons' high school requires "A Tale of Two Cities" which was grueling for active 16-year-old boys to read. Also among the required reading over the years are these: Conrad's "Heart of Darkness," Hawthorne's "The Scarlet Letter," Hamlet and Macbeth, Austen's "Pride and Prejudice," "The Great Gatsby," Twain's " Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Salinger's The Catcher in the Rye, Joseph Heller's Catch-22 (very hard for my son to grasp, Ralph Ellison's 1953 novel Invisible Man, Frederick Douglass' slave narratives, To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee and Frankenstein suprisingly. How we managed to fit the Harry Potter sagas in I'll never know.

  12. Heather says:

    I've never been assigned Dickens for a class. But on my own time I've read "A Christmas Carol," "Oliver Twist" and "A Tale of Two Cities."
    "Great Expectations" is one of those books I intend to read at some point when I have the time. I've been intending to do so for several years now…

  13. Regina says:

    My Ph.D. is in English, with a concentration in Victorian literature, so I've read just about all of Dickens and loved–most of it!

    I'm happy to see folks giving Dickens another try as adult readers. Scenes that seemed boring when you were twelve may really grip you now.

    Please make time for Great Expectations now, Heather!! Not only one of the best novels written, but one of the best titles, too. (How many novels might have also been called Great Expectations?)

  14. Julie Dao says:

    I first read "Great Expectations" in a high school literature class and absolutely fell in love with Dickens' writing. The novel won me over and I went on to read "A Christmas Carol," "David Copperfield," and "The Old Curiosity Shop." I've always been a fan of Victorian literature and his is some of the best I've found. I love a book that I can curl up with and get sucked right into. His stories really stand the test of time.

  15. Sarah C. says:

    I plodded through Dickens in high school, but as an adult, I've enjoyed his novels very much. Dark, bleak, sometimes sentimental, sometimes strange, but funny, too.

    My sense is that he was a reporter at heart, but one with an incredible imagination. I also think his novels may have influenced some of the later 19th-C. Russian novelists, and that's yet another reason to read him today.

  16. Erika D. says:

    I find the overall positive response here so encouraging! Thanks, everyone!

  17. Conocimiento says:

    I have read most of Dickens's major works, and some minor ones. Several of these were in college, but my love of Dickens began long before that. I think I read "Tale of Two Cities" in 10th grade high school, and was hooked from that point onward.

    When considering law school, the thing that made my decision to go to Harvard was not its stellar reputation or list of illustrious alumni, but the fact that it offered a course entitled "Dickens and the Law". Yale – eat your heart out!

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