As someone who teaches and writes about Dickens, the question of why we still read him is something that’s often on my mind. But that question was never more troubling than one day, nearly 10 years ago, when I was standing as a guest speaker in front of a class of about 30 high school students. I had been speaking for about 20 minutes with an 1850 copy of David Copperfield in my hand, telling the students that for Victorian readers, Dickens’s writing was very much a “tune-in-next-week” type of thing that generated trends and crazes, much as their own TV shows did for them today.
Then a hand shot up in the middle of the room.
“But why should we still read this stuff?”
I was speechless because in that moment I realised that, though I had begun a PhD dissertation on Dickens, I had never pondered the question myself.
The answer I gave was acceptable: “Because he teaches you how to think,” I said. But lots of writers can teach you how to think, and I knew that wasn’t really the reason.
The question nagged me for years, and for years I told myself answers, but never with complete satisfaction. We read Dickens not just because he was a man of his own times, but because he was a man for our times as well. We read Dickens because his perception and investigation of the human psyche is deep, precise, and illuminating, and because he tells us things about ourselves by portraying personality traits and habits that might seem all too familiar. His messages about poverty and charity have travelled through decades, and we can learn from the experiences of his characters almost as easily as we can learn from our own experiences.
These are all wonderful reasons to read Dickens. But these are not exactly the reasons why I read Dickens.
My search for an answer continued but never with success, until one year the little flicker came – not surprisingly – from another high school student (…)