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: Massage Therapist / Sports Therapist / Physio / Osteopath

£12000 - £24000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: An opportunity has arisen for o...

Recruitment Genius: Account Manager / Sales Executive - Contract Hire

£35000 - £60000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This industry leader provides c...

Recruitment Genius: Project Coordinator

£28000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Project Coordinator is requir...

Recruitment Genius: Area Sales Manager - Midlands

£20000 - £25000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an exciting opportunity...

Day In a Page

Read Next
 

Don’t pity me for eating alone, just give me a better table

Rosie Millard
Aerial view of planned third runway at Heathrow  

Heathrow expansion: This final 'conclusion' has simply fanned the airport flames

Chris Blackhurst
John Palmer: 'Goldfinger' of British crime was murdered, say police

Murder of the Brink’s-MAT mastermind

'Goldfinger' of British crime's life ended in a blaze of bullets, say police
Forget little green men - aliens will look like humans, says Cambridge University evolution expert

Forget little green men

Leading evolutionary biologist says aliens will look like humans
The Real Stories of Migrant Britain: An Algerian scientist adjusts to life working in a kebab shop

The Real Stories of Migrant Britain

An Algerian scientist struggles to adjust to her new life working in a Scottish kebab shop
Bodyworlds museum: Dr Gunther von Hagens has battled legal threats, Parkinson's disease, and the threat of bankruptcy

Dying dream of Doctor Death

Dr Gunther von Hagens has battled legal threats, Parkinson's disease, and the threat of bankruptcy
UK heatwave: Temperature reaches 39.8 degrees on Central Line - the sweatiest place in London

39.8 degrees recorded on Tube

There's hot (London) and too damn hot (the Underground). Simon Usborne braved the Central line to discover what its passengers suffer
Kitchens go hi-tech: From robot chefs to recipe-shopping apps, computerised cooking is coming

Computerised cooking is coming

From apps that automatically make shopping lists from your recipe books to smart ovens and robot chefs, Kevin Maney rounds up innovations to make your mouth water
Jessie Cave interview: The Harry Potter star has published a feminist collection of cartoons

Jessie Cave's feminist cartoons

The Harry Potter star tells Alice Jones how a one-night stand changed her life
Football Beyond Borders: Even the most distruptive pupils score at homework club

Education: Football Beyond Borders

Add football to an after-school homework club, and even the naughtiest boys can score
10 best barbecue books

Fire up the barbie: 10 best barbecue books

We've got Bibles to get you grilling and smoking like a true south American pro
Wimbledon 2015: Nick Bollettieri - Junk balls and chop and slice are only way 5ft 1in Kurumi Nara can live with Petra Kvitova’s power

Nick Bollettieri's Wimbledon Files

Junk balls and chop and slice are only way 5ft 1in Kurumi Nara can live with Petra Kvitova’s power
Ron Dennis exclusive: ‘This is one of the best McLaren teams ever – we are going to do it’

‘This is one of the best McLaren teams ever – we are going to do it’

Ron Dennis shrugs off a poor start to the season in an exclusive interview, and says the glory days will come back
Seifeddine Rezgui: What motivated a shy student to kill 38 holidaymakers in Tunisia?

Making of a killer

What motivated a shy student to kill 38 holidaymakers in Tunisia?
UK Heatwave: Temperatures on the tube are going to exceed the legal limit for transporting cattle

Just when you thought your commute couldn't get any worse...

Heatwave will see temperatures on the Tube exceed legal limit for transporting cattle
Exclusive - The Real Stories of Migrant Britain: Swapping Bucharest for London

The Real Stories of Migrant Britain

Meet the man who swapped Romania for the UK in a bid to provide for his family, only to discover that the home he left behind wasn't quite what it seemed
Cheaper energy on the way, but it's not all sunshine and rainbows

Cheaper energy on the way, but it's not all sunshine and rainbows

Solar power will help bring down electricity prices over the next five years, according to a new report. But it’s cheap imports of ‘dirty power’ that will lower them the most