Dickens: My Annual Literary Pilgrimage
by Jude Joseph Lovell
When I was a graduate student in Creative Writing, I came up with a crazy idea: I would challenge myself to read one Charles Dickens book every year for the rest of my life. What prompted me was this: a friend of mine had talked me into going with him to London for a three-day weekend. While there, he coerced me to go on a “Charles Dickens Walking Tour” of various parts of the city that the writer had made famous. I was taking a course at the time with an acclaimed fiction writer who was a huge Dickens fan. I had also just turned thirty, and my twin brother had given me a copy of A Tale of Two Cities for our birthday. I brought the novel with me to London.
The tour started in the late afternoon on the banks of the Thames River, but it carried on well into a glorious, crisp, windy evening in the London streets and back alleys. I still remember the old stone streets, skittering leaves, glowing lamps overhead, pubs. Something mysterious happened on that three-hour jaunt. Our guide was a small, older woman—an actress, clearly—dressed in nineteenth century clothing. Her task was to lead the tour and fire our interest. For my pounds and pence, she succeeded wildly. The entire Dickens universe in all its beauty, richness, squalor, and moral complexity exploded in my brain and has never left.
All of Dickens’s novels are classics—sprawling, complex tales that have implications for people of every nations, every generation. Their subject is humanity.
Beginning with The Pickwick Papers, which was serialized in 1836, Dickens became the publishing world’s first global phenomenon. People lined the streets to buy each installment, traded bootlegged copies, even produced their own adaptations—what we might call “fan fiction” today. Dickens was also an innovator. There were plenty of rambling novels around then, but no one had ever created such epic, rich plots. No one had ever written in so many different voices, from all walks of life. Dickens changed storytelling forever.
For me, reading Dickens is about learning from the Master. But there’s another excellent reason to read him. Call it “moral education.” If that’s too grandiose, try “general instruction in the Game of Life.” Or, simply: you should read Dickens for “stop the world, I want to get off” reasons.
As we get older, we should all read the classics. They only grow richer with the passage of time. What is a classic? I favor the Italian writer Italo Calvino’s definition: “A classic is a book that has never finished saying what it has to say.”
There have been investigations into how reading classic literature keeps the brain limber by challenging our intellect and even make us better people. A 2013 study in the journal Science, for example, gathered two groups of readers, supplying one with classic literature and the other with commercial fiction. Both groups were then given a series of tests related to empathy, social perception, and emotional intelligence. Those reading the classics achieved markedly higher results.
This doesn’t mean that those who read commercial fiction (I love it, too) aren’t good people. But the study indicates that those who read classics are providing instruction for their minds and their morals, and are learning ways to negotiate new social territory, regardless of age.
I’m far enough into my experiment now—my “Dickensfest”—to have read every one of his novels at least once, as well as a number of his shorter works. The first I read, A Tale of Two Cities, remains a favorite. It is compact by Dickens’s standards, and its moving and heroic denouement, one of his most famous, hit me hard then and still does. Bleak House gripped me early with its famously metaphoric opening passage about a boat drifting on the Thames toward London through a wall of impenetrable fog. That novel pulses with moral fervor in its impassioned stance against England’s byzantine legal system. I thought Our Mutual Friend, a late work written when Dickens was supposedly “losing it,” had a gripping, dark plot, including a riveting murder/suicide involving the Thames River (again) and a heavy chain.
Pitching Charles Dickens novels to modern readers is admittedly difficult. The man can ramble on forever about seemingly mundane things. Many of his sprawling plots hinge on improbable coincidences or long-lost relatives showing up at a convenient moment. Some people grow weary of his use of the vernacular of his day.
When I read Dickens’s novels, the rest of the world falls away. They engage my mind and my emotions. They show me the way in which human beings, however flawed, can stumble, triumph, agonize, organize, love, and die. They reassure me that our species never really changes much, and that we are all—male, female; this color, that color; this tribe, that tribe—in this together.
Photo credits by: wikimedia.org, publicdomainpictures.net
Jude Joseph Lovell writes on books and popular culture for Silver Sage and is the author of four novels, three short story collections, and four works of nonfiction. His newest book is Door In The Air: New and Selected Stories, 1999-2020. He lives with his wife and four growing children in the Lehigh Valley, Pennsylvania. For more information visit his website at judejosephlovell.com.