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A global Dickens appreciation, and a modest proposal

Novelist Charles Dickens at his writing desk, c. 1859.


It kicked off in Australia a few hours ago with a reading of Dombey and Son. Then comes Nicholas Nickleby in Korea, The Cricket on the Hearth in Syria and The Mystery of Edwin Drood in the United Arab Emirates. It's part of a marathon celebration of Charles Dickens's 200th birthday – the Global Dickens Read-a-thon – spanning 24 hours and 24 countries.

Meanwhile, a wreath will be laid at the writer's tomb in Westminster Abbey by dignitaries including the Prince of Wales, Ralph Fiennes and Dickens's latest biographer Claire Tomalin.

But will we celebrate Dickens on his next big anniversary? Even Tomalin thinks not. She says schools today – despite foisting tomes like A Tale of Two Cities on unprepared teenagers – aren't giving children the attention span to appreciate such complex novels. In the age of Twitter, who has the time or interest for 900-page excursions into 19th-century England?

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But if time is the problem, maybe it's also an answer. Instead of becoming like the renegade "Book People" in Ray Bradbury's Fahrenheit 451, where Dickens fans, before we die off, would be left to whisper choice bits from our favourite novels to each other while the rest of the world reads tweets and texts – the optimist in me calls for the development of what I call Slow Reading.

It's a new-old skill. Old because reading, unlike listening to music or watching plays or movies, has always allowed us to go at our own pace, slowing down, speeding up, going backwards as the text demands. New because, like the Slow Food movement, that pace has become a novelty and a luxury as the rest of life gears up to warp speed. And newish, too, in the case of Dickens, because as he recedes into the past, his prose requires us to savour it, to turn those delicious and sometimes puzzling morsels over in our minds to see what they will yield.

There's no denying that Dickens's embroidered, involved sentences make increasing demands on the modern reader. The enormous success of J. K. Rowling's Harry Potter books and Stieg Larsson's Millennium trilogy shows that we still have an appetite for long, complicated stories. But Rowling's and Larsson's prose is built for speed. Unlike Dickens, there's nothing there in the way of language to stop the rapid turning of pages.

My own introduction to Dickens came when I was about 8 or 9 and was given a maudlin Edwardian book called Charming Stories About Children, condensed introductions to his fictional children. I doubt that any child psychologist would find them "charming." The stories that impressed me most were the luxurious, long-drawn-out deaths of Little Nell in The Old Curiosity Shop and Paul Dombey in Dombey and Son. In spite of, or perhaps because of, the rampant sentimentality, I was hooked.

I agree with Tomalin that this is not likely to happen today, but the problem is hardly new. More than 25 years ago, I read my school-age daughters the wonderful opening chapters of David Copperfield, certain that this tale of childhood sorrows and adventures would turn them into readers of Dickens. It never happened – and the problem has only become more intense since then.

Slow Readers will never be more than a tiny minority (and I have to wonder whether Dickens, who was nothing if not speedy, would have found that a congenial concept).

Instead, the realist in me sees Dickens enduring in the never-ending stream of movies and BBC television series based on his works. (The TV series are particularly fun because they mimic the original publication in monthly instalments.)

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In one important aspect the adaptations even go one better than Dickens: The eccentric secondary characters are predictably dazzling, but the often-insipid heroes and heroines also shine on the screen because the actors give them a life that Dickens could not.

Arthur Clennam and Amy Dorrit in Little Dorrit are two of Dickens's dullest heroes and heroines, but Matthew Macfadyen and Claire Foy in the 2008 BBC series took the characters and the book to a new level of delight. Similarly, Anna Maxwell Martin as Esther Summerson in the 2005 BBC version of Bleak House gave that wearyingly modest character a new complexity.

Slow Readers may not find this new cinematic and televisual fame the best of all possible outcomes, but Dickens simply created too many characters – Miss Havisham, Fagin, Tiny Tim, Pickwick and many more – who cannot be allowed to die.

One thing is certain: Dickens the enthusiastic and hyper-theatrical actor, director and reader of his works would welcome his newest incarnation.

Katherine Ashenburg is the author of The Dirt on Clean: An Unsanitized History.

Special to The Globe and Mail

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