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

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Finance Director

£65000 - £80000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Finance Director required to jo...

Recruitment Genius: Medico-Legal Assistant

£15000 - £25000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is a unique opportunity fo...

Ashdown Group: (PHP / Python) - Global Media firm

£50000 per annum + 26 days holiday,pension: Ashdown Group: A highly successful...

The Jenrick Group: Quality Inspector

£27000 per annum + pension + holidays: The Jenrick Group: A Quality Technician...

Day In a Page

Read Next
 

A happy ending for celebrity memoirs

Katy Guest
William Hague with his former special adviser, Christopher Myers  

Who needs special advisers? We all do

John Rentoul
The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

Sony suffered a chorus of disapproval after it withdrew 'The Interview', but it's not too late for it to take a stand, says Joan Smith
From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?

Panto dames: before and after

From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?
Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

Booksellers say readers are turning away from dark modern thrillers and back to the golden age of crime writing
Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best,' says founder of JustGiving

Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best'

Ten million of us have used the JustGiving website to donate to good causes. Its co-founder says that being dynamic is as important as being kind
The botanist who hunts for giant trees at Kew Gardens

The man who hunts giants

A Kew Gardens botanist has found 25 new large tree species - and he's sure there are more out there
The 12 ways of Christmas: Spare a thought for those who will be working to keep others safe during the festive season

The 12 ways of Christmas

We speak to a dozen people who will be working to keep others safe, happy and healthy over the holidays
Birdwatching men have a lot in common with their feathered friends, new study shows

The male exhibits strange behaviour

A new study shows that birdwatching men have a lot in common with their feathered friends...
Diaries of Evelyn Waugh, Virginia Woolf and Noël Coward reveal how they coped with the December blues

Famous diaries: Christmas week in history

Noël Coward parties into the night, Alan Clark bemoans the cost of servants, Evelyn Waugh ponders his drinking…
From noble to narky, the fall of the open letter

From noble to narky, the fall of the open letter

The great tradition of St Paul and Zola reached its nadir with a hungry worker's rant to Russell Brand, says DJ Taylor
A Christmas ghost story by Alison Moore: A prodigal daughter has a breakthrough

A Christmas ghost story by Alison Moore

The story was published earlier this month in 'Poor Souls' Light: Seven Curious Tales'
Marian Keyes: The author on her pre-approved Christmas, true love's parking implications and living in the moment

Marian Keyes

The author on her pre-approved Christmas, true love's parking implications and living in the moment
Bill Granger recipes: Our chef creates an Italian-inspired fish feast for Christmas Eve

Bill Granger's Christmas Eve fish feast

Bill's Italian friends introduced him to the Roman Catholic custom of a lavish fish supper on Christmas Eve. Here, he gives the tradition his own spin…
Liverpool vs Arsenal: Brendan Rodgers is fighting for his reputation

Rodgers fights for his reputation

Liverpool manager tries to stay on his feet despite waves of criticism
Amir Khan: 'The Taliban can threaten me but I must speak out... innocent kids, killed over nothing. It’s sick in the mind'

Amir Khan attacks the Taliban

'They can threaten me but I must speak out... innocent kids, killed over nothing. It’s sick in the mind'
Michael Calvin: Sepp Blatter is my man of the year in sport. Bring on 2015, quick

Michael Calvin's Last Word

Sepp Blatter is my man of the year in sport. Bring on 2015, quick