Who still reads Charles Dickens?

Two hundred years ago, on February 7, 1812, Charles Dickens was born. To many, he is the greatest English novelist of all time, nothing less than a prose Shakespeare in creating one immortal character after another. He is also beloved as the author of that seasonal favorite, “A Christmas Carol.” Screen adaptations of his novels have been hits; “Oliver Twist” has inspired a musical. But is Dickens still widely read?

In eighth grade my English teacher assigned his class “A Tale of Two Cities” and most of us were pretty bored by it. Only Madame Defarge and her knitting and the last page’s “It is a far, far better thing I do” excited our jaded sensibilities. In truth, the book was too slow, too dark, too dense.

Later, in high school, we read “Great Expectations.” While the opening scenes with Magwitch were scary enough, and those with Miss Havisham suitably eerie, much of the book was again dutifully plowed through rather than excitedly enjoyed.

All in all, I have the impression that Dickens has become the preserve of a few fans, but that he doesn’t speak to younger people. Am I wrong? I hope so.

Once upon a time, his books were certainly read by young and old alike. But now, I think, only those with a certain amount of literary experience behind their belt are likely to appreciate his work. Required reading in school seems to have sent Dickens’s novels into the same limbo usually associated with George Eliot’s “Silas Marner”: Worthy books that most kids never want to see again.

I say this as a deep admirer of his almost hallucinatory artistry and the owner of his complete works. I’ve even written a long essay on Dickens as a journalist (see the online Barnes and Noble Review).

But let me ask the Reading Room members: What does Dickens mean to you? Do you count yourself a Dickens fan? Which is your favorite novel? What book do you recommend to neophytes and young people as “starter Dickens”? Please share your thoughts.

— Michael Dirda

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