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    How to Read Dickens

    Karen Swallow Prior

    August 10, 2020
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    • Lawrence

      Dickens cared about the poor, and his care was his impassioned plea for us to take note. That is clear. Listing Hemingway among the tweets, etc., is misplaced, I feel. He was indeed a worldly man, but he did seek the "true" and the "real" in his writing. There is something akin to a meditation as one reads his shaved down lines. Like counting beads on a rosary, a certain rhythm arises, for me at least. All right, Hemingway was part of my journey in learning good journalism. E. B. White was another. “I do feel a responsibility to society because of going into print: a writer has the duty to be good, not lousy; true, not false; lively, not dull; accurate, not full of error. He should tend to lift people up, not lower them down. Writers do not merely reflect and interpret life, they inform and shape life.”

    • Francis Manion

      Yes! I never tire of Dickens. Forced myself to read all of the novels about ten years ago and, though it took a few years, I reread at least one of them each year now. Highly recommend Chesterton on Dickens. He points out that the main characters are rarely, if ever, the best part of any of the novels. It’s everybody else, and often the more minor characters. But the best part of Dickens for me is that he’s laugh-out-loud funny! My spouse thinks I’m off my rocker but there are times I literally LOL at parts of Dickens. Tolle lege!

    This October, Plough is releasing The Gospel in Dickens, a new anthology edited by Gina Dalfonzo. From Karen Swallow Prior’s foreword to the book:

    Good literature is fresh water for the soul. While some writers offer a sip ladled from the well, Dickens takes us to a mountain waterfall where rushing waters saturate, overwhelm, and put us at risk of drowning as we drink. But fear not. This book of selected readings is more like a gentle brook whose waters will quench the thirst of Dickens aficionados and neophytes alike. I know this volume will attract those who know and love Dickens already, but I hope it woos those who have yet to drink from his depths.

    Dickens was, perhaps, the first real, grown-up, literary author I fell in love with. I think that happened because I was allowed to wade into the stream gradually when I was first assigned Great Expectations by my junior-high English teacher. By using an abridged, illustrated version for young readers, my teacher introduced us to the storytelling powers of Dickens without letting us get lost in the baroque style that is beyond the tastes and abilities of inexperienced readers. The images from that early immersion in an age-appropriate version have remained with me my whole life, deepened and enriched with each rereading. The memories of the eccentric Miss Havisham, her decaying cake crawling with spiders, the sparring of the mysterious Pale Young Gentleman, and of course, the alternatingly endearing and annoying Pip are as vivid in my mind as memories of real-life people and events.

    A photo of Charles Dickens reading a book

    Charles Dickens, 1863 Photograph by Robert Hindry Mason (public domain)

    I was lucky enough to have a teacher who helped me develop that taste, not only for Dickens but for all of the demands that good literature makes upon readers. The difference between a great book and one written (and read) merely to entertain or pass the time is that good literature demands an investment from the reader in order to reap its rewards. Reading good literature well doesn’t always come easily. Sometimes the challenge of literary art presents itself in its otherness (being by or about people from times and places vastly different from ours). Almost always the challenge comes from the artful use of language – words sparer, richer, less direct, or more resonant than those we use in everyday speech.

    Both of these challenges – otherness and artfulness – are present in Dickens for today’s readers. Dickens’s style is difficult for those of us habituated to the plain, flat prose of cable news, blog posts, Twitter feeds, or Ernest Hemingway. To read Dickens well, not only for newcomers but even for me, a seasoned reader, requires deliberately arming ourselves against our usual hurry and our shortening attention spans. Readers of Dickens need to be willing to slow their reading pace, luxuriate in the circumlocutory sentences, reread passages that take unexpected turns, and tune their ear to the cadence of the multiple voices that inhabit Dickens’s busy, busy world. Whether the massive Bleak House or the short but still demanding A Christmas Carol, Dickens requires a commitment of time, attention, effort, and patience.

    To read Dickens requires arming ourselves against our usual hurry and our shortening attention spans.

    But that commitment is well worth it. For even beyond the literary merits of his works, Dickens puts forth, as Gina Dalfonzo explains in the introduction, a profoundly Christian view of the world. And while the redemptive elements are some of the strongest within the body of his work, perhaps what can speak most powerfully to our world today is the theme of guilt. Dickens is prophetic in the way he illuminates the distinctions we of a modern, increasingly secular world often fail to make between real guilt and false shame, between true repentance and cheap substitutions. More and more today – as in the world of these novels – the truly guilty feel no shame, those who feel greatly ashamed are the most innocent, and those who say they’re sorry don’t have the godly sorrow that brings repentance.

    Thus, the division of the excerpts from Dickens’s work into sections on sin, repentance, and righteousness is true not only to Dickens’s major concerns but to ones we ought to have today as well. While this volume is a curated selection, this arrangement and the introduction offer a picture of Dickens’s entire corpus. To return to my opening metaphor, the wide-ranging, insightfully arranged selections here encourage those whose souls thirst for more to follow the exhortation of Alexander Pope, a poet who lived a century before Dickens:

    Drink deep, or taste not the Pierian spring:
    There shallow draughts intoxicate the brain,
    And drinking largely sobers us again.

    The Gospel in Dickens book cover
    Get the book: The Gospel in Dickens: Selections from His Works
    Contributed By KarenSwallowPrior Karen Swallow Prior

    Karen Swallow Prior is Research Professor of English and Christianity and Culture at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary and is the author of On Reading Well: Finding the Good Life through Great Literature (Brazos, 2018).

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