CALLING ALL DICKENS GREENHORNS!
Novel readers, listen up! Better yet, divide up into two teams – Pro-Dickens vs. What-the-Dickens. (Anti-Dickens, I’m not inviting you to play.) If you were recruited for the Pro-Dickens team in lit class, but said no thanks, I’ll give you a second chance. Consider me your Post-School, Pro-Dickens Librarian Recruiter.
You probably feel like you know Dickens’ work. You’ve seen a film or stage version of A Christmas Carol. Your high school performed the musical Oliver. But perhaps you haven’t actually read Dickens.
As your Pro-Dickens recruiter, I recommend beginning with Hard Times. The full title is Hard Times – For These Times. I’m not the only book scout who believes this is the best place to start. George Bernard Shaw observed that in Hard Times, readers are likely to find Dickens worth reading for the first time.
Beginning Points: Modest Expectations About Hard Times
• It’s Dickens shortest novel (around 300 pages, depending on the edition).
• Because it’s short, the cast of characters is (for Dickens) small, and the plot is relatively simple.
• One critic wrote that Hard Times is an abstract of Dickens’ other novels. This is helpful for the first time Dickens reader. You’ll get a sense of his common themes without going into overtime.
• The story is set in England’s industrial north, in mythical Coketown. Throughout his life Dickens was indignant about industrial conditions. He was also passionately against a new, government sanctioned method of teaching, the Utilitarian educational system. Dickens felt that this system, which valued facts and statistics and allowed no place for the imagination, was as gloomy and hopeless as Coketown itself. (Read Dickens’ description of industrial Coketown and picture pre-cleaned up Pittsburgh.) Coketown was the product of Utilitarian theory, which allowed the rich and powerful to exert their will upon their employees and nature herself.
• The main characters are a school master and his family (the Gradgrinds), a circus owner (Mr. Sleary) and his daughter (Sissy Jupe), and a factory owner (Mr. Bounderby).
• Freedom, humor, and creativity flourish in the lives of the circus performers. Their lives of imagination are contrasted with the Gradgrind’s lives of facts. Dickens pleads for “a little more fancy among children and a little less fact.”
If reading Hard Times entices you to join the Pro-Dickens team, you’ll look forward to taking on the big bullies. Among my recommendations are Great Expectations (550 pages), and, weighing in at 900 pages each, Little Dorrit and Dombey and Son.