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Monday, January 31, 2011

No Time for Dickens

I was invited some time ago to join an online book group called Goodreads. It is a fun web site for a bibliophile: you type in the titles of your favorite books and then rate them and give them a review, and then as you read new books, you add your reviews of them to your online book shelves.

On my To-Read shelf has been the Charles Dickens novel A Tale of Two Cities. It has been there probably about two years now. I have it in the pile next to my bed. But I have what I think is an incredibly busy life and I have not wanted to invest the time that Dickens demands.

Back when I was about 15 years old, my great-aunt Ruth suffered a broken hip and had to be moved from her apartment in Portland, Oregon, to a nursing home near our home in California. My dad took me with him to make the arrangements. It was my first airplane trip among other firsts. We went to see the attorney who was handling the affairs of my great aunt. This attorney was an elderly lady (at least, she seemed elderly to me at the time), very regal-looking, and I developed an instant case of hero-worship.

After her interview with my dad, she asked me some questions about my interests. I told her I had just read my first Charles Dickens novel, Oliver Twist, and had loved it. She offered to lend me her copy of David Copperfield, a beautifully bound, very expensive, two-volume edition that was quite old. Now I think she was crazy to trust such a valuable book to a teenager she had just barely met. But she did, and I treasured that book that summer. I do not remember how long it took me to read the book. It is very long! I think it took about two months.

I lived in the Dickensian world. I adopted Dickensian speech patterns. If I had heard a British accent, I am sure I would have adopted that too. I never wanted the book to end. However, it ended at last and I carefully wrapped up the volumes and mailed them back to the lawyer in Portland, with what I think probably was a Dickensian-flavored gushing letter of thanks.

I read The Pickwick Papers next. Again, I was immersed in a world that seemed to take over my life. Stopping reading was sort of like coming up for air while playing Marco Polo in our swimming pool.

In college, I read Great Expectations and Nicholas Nickleby, and parts of Bleak House, A Tale of Two Cities, The Old Curiosity Shop, and Dombey and Son. I couldn't read all of these long books because I had too many other demands on my time. Dickens demands a huge investment in time.

I keep promising myself to invest that time in reading all of these novels, but I keep picking up something that demands far less instead. Does anybody sit down and read all of a Dickens novel anymore?

My book group (the live one, not the online one) chose David Copperfield last fall. I reread parts of it but did not have the time to reread the whole thing. My mother read it all, reading and reading and reading and reading. She also read other books in between marathon sessions with David Copperfield. It was worth it, she said, but difficult to achieve. I envied her.

I want time for Dickens.