Nicholas Lezard: Dickens always was a struggle

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

Share
Related Topics

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.

React Now

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Biztalk - outstanding opportunity

£75000 - £85000 per annum + ex bens: Deerfoot IT Resources Limited: Biztalk Te...

Trade Desk Specialist (FIX, Linux, Windows, Network Security)

£60000 per annum: Harrington Starr: Trade Desk Specialist (FIX, Linux, Windows...

Service Desk Analyst (Windows, Active Directory, ITIL, Reuter)

£35000 per annum: Harrington Starr: Service Desk Analyst (Windows, Active Dire...

PHP Web Developer (HTML5, CSS3, Jenkins, Vagrant, MySQL)

£40000 - £45000 per annum + Benefits + Bonus: Harrington Starr: PHP Web Develo...

Day In a Page

Read Next
 

i Editor's Letter: The final instalment of our WW1 series

Oliver Duff Oliver Duff
 

Simon Usborne: The more you watch pro cycling, the more you understand its social complexity

Simon Usborne
A History of the First World War in 100 Moments: Peace without magnanimity - the summit in a railway siding that ended the fighting

A History of the First World War in 100 Moments

Peace without magnanimity - the summit in a railway siding that ended the fighting
Scottish independence: How the Commonwealth Games could swing the vote

Scottish independence: How the Commonwealth Games could swing the vote

In the final part of our series, Chris Green arrives in Glasgow - a host city struggling to keep the politics out of its celebration of sport
Out in the cold: A writer spends a night on the streets and hears the stories of the homeless

A writer spends a night on the streets

Rough sleepers - the homeless, the destitute and the drunk - exist in every city. Will Nicoll meets those whose luck has run out
Striking new stations, high-speed links and (whisper it) better services - the UK's railways are entering a new golden age

UK's railways are entering a new golden age

New stations are opening across the country and our railways appear to be entering an era not seen in Britain since the early 1950s
Conchita Wurst becomes a 'bride' on the Paris catwalk - and proves there is life after Eurovision

Conchita becomes a 'bride' on Paris catwalk

Alexander Fury salutes the Eurovision Song Contest winner's latest triumph
Pétanque World Championship in Marseilles hit by

Pétanque 'world cup' hit by death threats

This year's most acrimonious sporting event took place in France, not Brazil. How did pétanque get so passionate?
Whelks are healthy, versatile and sustainable - so why did we stop eating them in the UK?

Why did we stop eating whelks?

Whelks were the Victorian equivalent of the donor kebab and our stocks are abundant. So why do we now export them all to the Far East?
10 best women's sunglasses

In the shade: 10 best women's sunglasses

From luxury bespoke eyewear to fun festival sunnies, we round up the shades to be seen in this summer
Germany vs Argentina World Cup 2014: Lionel Messi? Javier Mascherano is key for Argentina...

World Cup final: Messi? Mascherano is key for Argentina...

No 10 is always centre of attention but Barça team-mate is just as crucial to finalists’ hopes
Siobhan-Marie O’Connor: Swimmer knows she needs Glasgow joy on road to Rio

Siobhan-Marie O’Connor: Swimmer needs Glasgow joy on road to Rio

18-year-old says this month’s Commonwealth Games are a key staging post in her career before time slips away
The true Gaza back-story that the Israelis aren’t telling this week

The true Gaza back-story that the Israelis aren’t telling this week

A future Palestine state will have no borders and be an enclave within Israel, surrounded on all sides by Israeli-held territory, says Robert Fisk
A History of the First World War in 100 Moments: The German people demand an end to the fighting

A History of the First World War in 100 Moments

The German people demand an end to the fighting
New play by Oscar Wilde's grandson reveals what the Irish wit said at his trials

New play reveals what Oscar Wilde said at trials

For a century, what Wilde actually said at his trials was a mystery. But the recent discovery of shorthand notes changed that. Now his grandson Merlin Holland has turned them into a play
Can scientists save the world's sea life from

Can scientists save our sea life?

By the end of the century, the only living things left in our oceans could be plankton and jellyfish. Alex Renton meets the scientists who are trying to turn the tide
Richard III, Trafalgar Studios, review: Martin Freeman gives highly intelligent performance

Richard III review

Martin Freeman’s psychotic monarch is big on mockery but wanting in malice