Wednesday, December 9, 2009

A Note on Charles Dickens (for Mr. Thompson... more book reviews soon)

Hello dear little Honors English students! My name is Emma Phelps and I was in Honors English with Mr. Thompson back when I was in the ninth grade. If you look around the old forum pages, you’ll see me under the name of Londonchick (don’t even worry, I was a weirdy in ninth grade. I’m still just as nerdy, I’ve just toned down my obsessions)

As I understand it, Mr. Thompson is going to have you read a book by Charles Dickens in the upcoming term. He gave me the assignment to either a. make reading Dickens less agonizing for you or b. convince him to skip Dickens and make you read something else.

When I approached this lofty assignment, I at first wasn’t sure which of these I was going to attempt to do. I went back and reread some of what I once wrote in response to Dickens, read a few Dickens passages, and got over my fear of disappointing Mr. Thompson by discouraging his assignment. After a lot of contemplation, I have decided to support the reading of Dickens. Sorry everyone, but just go with me for a second.

So on this blog, I review the books I read. I’m an English nut and I’m very opinionated and I can’t function unless I share my opinions and feelings; typical girl, right? Just kidding. If you scroll down a bit, you can see my review of the book A Christmas Carol by Dickens. If you are too lazy, here is one of my first sentences:

“After a terrible introduction to Charles Dickens via Great Expectations in the ninth grade, I had sworn to hate Dickens for time and all eternity.”

Ok, probably not the best way to start this assignment of making Dickens less of a hassle. This is a very discouraging sentence, but stick with me a bit longer and it will all come together. In the rest of my blog, I continue my review. And after a long time of procrastination and tears, I started the book and loved every second of it.

Now, I did deplore reading Great Expectations and I didn’t read A Tale of Two Cities (yet) so you can’t call me out on either of those. I know what you guys think like and I know you will try to continue hating this assignment if I can’t convince you to give it a chance. I understand that A Christmas Carol is a lot shorter than either of the aforementioned books and I know we all have heard the plot of A Christmas Carol a million and three times. But as a great English teacher once told me, “You cannot separate a great work of fiction from its author.” The same is true for Dickens. Each of the novels he wrote were, in some form, similar to his others. If you can handle one, the other will be within your grasp too.

Here are my tips on Dickens. I’m no expert but I do know a bit more than you, no offense.

First, you need to give him a chance!!!! Have you ever noticed that after you read a really good book, it’s really hard to get into another book because you are so attached to the other characters and the other story? Dickens is like that. It takes more than five seconds to get into his books. I raided some of the forums and gathered a few quotes.

“Every time I pick up the book and read it for 30 seconds I get bored and sleepy and skip most of the words. I'm on chapter 5 and i hope i can finish it by midterm.”

We have all felt this way, I know that and so do you. But you need to know that it’s ok to feel that way for the first bit. Most books follow that sort of pattern; the beginning is mostly used as a set up for the rest of the book. We have to be told the intricate details of the storyline before we can fully appreciate the plot of the book.

Details. This brings us to our next point. Dickens is a nut for details. Another student said:

“This book makes me fall asleep! I think Charles Dickens is a bad author who is much liked by people who love exccesive amounts of detail!”

Not only did this student spell excessive wrong, but he’s being narrow minded. I hate to admit it, but I had this exact same attitude when I first read Dickens in the ninth grade. The detail Dickens uses is a bit excessive but you have to look at his writing from two different perspectives: the perspective of an author and the perspective of a performer.

Dickens wrote his books so they could be read out loud. Every year he read his Christmas Carol out loud to an audience in his town. Look at Dickens not as a reader. As an author, he cares about giving the reader the best picture he possibly could, something we should thank him for. I quote myself from an earlier blog:

“When I first read Dickens, his over description threw me for a loop. I thought it was too much, it was forced, and it made his reading drag very much. Now after hearing it come out of my own mouth, I’ve discovered that he wrote just as he spoke. When you tell a person about something you care about, you leave nothing to their imagination. Dickens cares so much for his characters and his stories that he can’t leave anything out and I thank him for that. He gives the readers an image that will not soon be erased from their minds.”

He wrote for a generation that didn’t have Google for something they didn’t know or a TV they could turn to when they were bored. They didn’t know what some of the things that he talked about were so he had to describe them. People in his time period thirsted for the latest installment of a story by Dickens. They would wait for so long and as soon as a new chapter was slapped into their hands, they raced home to read it. Not only did they read it to themselves, they read it to their families. Literacy wasn’t big in this time, or at least as big as it would become. So, the educated few of the towns took the liberty to read the story to everyone else. That way, not only could the reader enjoy it more but so could the audience. Read Dickens out loud.

Think about a movie or a play you have seen recently. Would you prefer to see it performed or read the script? Think about Dickens’ novels as scripts. If you are dedicated and willing enough, your mind can become the stage. Mr. Thompson on our forum said:

“Dickens demands your complete attention, so this is a very different sort of reading than most of you are accustomed to. You can't read Dickens while you are watching TV or listening to the stereo; your full attention must be on the words. Also, you have to set aside significant amounts of time for reading -- I recommend at least half an hour at a stretch, more if possible. It is very difficult to keep all the plots and subplots together in your head if you try to read the book in 70 ten-minute sessions; it is better to shoot for ten 70-minute sessions.”

You need to concentrate on his novels. His words are different than ours but if you let yourself sit back in time and be in the graveyards along with Pip or in the middle of the city in A Tale of Two Cities, it will be easier.

“And it takes a lot of concentration to read a classic like Dickens. I don't think a lot of modern readers are willing to give the book the proper amount of time and effort that it needs.” BE WILLING!!!! You are not the average reader.

“I think that reading this book is harder because they say things in a different way than we would. Kind of like Shakespeare but not quiet to that extent. Also, I think that it's because we don't seem to have very long attention spans nowadays. In the world today we seem to want to have everything fast and easy( fast food, high speed internet, cable) so when we have to read something like a classic novel, due to the time and effort needed to make sence of the story, it seems to make us think that it is impossible and can't be done.”

Get over the fact that Dickens doesn’t speak like you do. You are getting older, books and school and life for that matter are getting harder; you have got to accept this. The faster you accept it, the easier life is, trust me. During your reading of this book, don’t be surprised when you come across words you don’t know. This book will require more attention from you and more work. My recommendation, sit with a dictionary when you read this book. As soon as you see a word you don’t know, mark it with a post it note, grab a piece of paper, write it down, and LOOK IT UP! This will make reading take longer but when it comes time to take a test on this book or write an essay about it, it will pay off that you know what everything you read actually meant.

“When I first started, it was horrible! Now I understand it a lot better.”

This is delightful and so true. After all of your hard work reading this novel, be sure and have fun with it. People in Dickens day were entertained by it and believe me, people haven’t changed much. What Dickens writes about how people feel is still true today; that’s why Shakespeare is still popular, his characters are relatable. Give it time and take it slow.

To sum up this ramble, here are my tips for success with Dickens:

1. Give Dickens a chance. Don’t write him off based on prior knowledge or thoughts about him or just by reading the first page.
2. Accept the excessive details.
3. Think like a writer and a performer.
4. When in doubt, READ DICKENS OUT LOUD!
5. Turn off the TV and concentrate.
6. Take the time to really read the book.
7. Sit with a dictionary right next to you. Mark up your book.
8. Give it time. BE WILLING!
9. Have fun!

Thanks for reading this and I hope you enjoyed it. Please give Dickens a chance and enjoy him! Happy reading and best wishes!


  1. Emma: Fabulous! I couldn't have said it better myself...that's why I asked you to say it.

    Current Honors English students: Emma was in your shoes once. She wants to help you. Since you probably won't trust the teacher on this one, consider her your more experienced peer, and try to take her advice. You'll be glad you did.

  2. Looks like I'll have to give Dickens a chance, then!

    Emma, did you take Creative Writing with Mrs. Barney?

  3. haHA! I thought your name sounded familiar.... I loved that class! Best ever!!