Nicholas Lezard: Dickens always was a struggle

The idea of facing a long book filled me with panic until I was in my twenties

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According to Claire Tomalin, his latest biographer, children no longer have the attention span to read Dickens. She has a point: last year, my 11-year-old's English teacher decided that the best way for the class to approach him was to watch A Muppet Christmas Carol. And they didn't have the attention span for the whole movie, either: they were only obliged to watch the opening scenes.

This can make us despair. We think of all the distractions available to us – distractions that are almost forced upon us, in fact – and wonder how on earth a long-dead writer, who indeed wrote at great length, can compete. Whether Tomalin actually has direct experience of children's attention spans these days I do not know, but we accept this on the nod, although what she blames are, quaintly, "dreadful television programmes", rather than games real and virtual, Facebook, Twitter, and whatever else can be squeezed into a life once all these have been dealt with. You know, like friendship, or meals, or homework and tidying one's room.

But I wonder whether we really should be worried at all. It might be a good idea to look at one's own past and ask oneself: honestly, did I ever have the attention span for Dickens when I was a child? I didn't. The idea of facing a long book produced in me a dull panic until I was, frankly, in my twenties. The experience of having to read Middlemarch in a week when I was 15 might have scarred me. And yet I not only love literature, including long books these days, I make a living (of sorts) from my appreciation of it (although I will always have a fondness for the pithy over the prolix).

Still, the attention span is a capricious thing and its measurement not as exact a science as you might at first think. I might not have had the stomach for Dickens when I was 11 years old but I could certainly handle The Lord of the Rings, which at the time I not only considered the finest book it was possible to write, but also, despite its archaic prose, not nearly long enough.

There is a world of difference between being told to read Dickens and reading Dickens for fun. Think of the nightmare story by Evelyn Waugh, "The Man Who Loved Dickens", which he absorbed into his great novel, A Handful of Dust, in which the hero, Tony Last, is condemned to live out his days in the jungle reading Dickens's works on a continuous loop to a madman. Few books have had such a cruel and chilling climax. But this was based on Waugh's time stuck in a South American town when all he had for diversion was a Dickens novel – which he found a very pleasant diversion. Waugh knew that context was all.

So we shouldn't be too worried if today's youth are having a hard time reading Hard Times. I did, and I bet many of you once did, too. It is not a sign that civilisation is collapsing. And by the end of the year, we might all feel a bit like Tony Last.

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