Full disclosure: I am not exactly qualified to write this post. I have one novel to go*. But here's how this post came about: at the end of 1999 I was thinking things over. Y2K was rapidly approaching, and I was going to turn 30 that year. We'd only had an internet connection in our home since the spring, but already I was aware of its time-sucking focus-splintering dark side. I remember looking out across the next decade and thinking about who I wanted to be at the end of it, and about what kind of steward I hoped to be of the gifts God had given me. Also, we had no shower in our little rental Edinburgh house, and I had discovered that a person could get a fair amount of reading done in that quiet half-hour in the bath at night.
I decided that every year I would read a Dickens novel and a Shakespeare play. I figured I'd get them read by menopause. It turns out that I'll finish all of the Dickens novels* before I turn 40. It's been really fun. Here are three tips if you are interested in a Dickens project of your own.
- Take it slowly. One per year has been the perfect pace for me. Dickens hits a lot of the same themes in his novels and this way I can peg a novel to a year and mostly keep them straight. Otherwise I might imagine Gaffer Hexam pulling Daniel Quilp's body out of the Thames, or Uriah Heep spontaneously combusting. (Though probably not. That scene in Bleak House is my favorite piece of writerly chutzpah in all of literature.)
- But not too slowly. When I start a novel, I proceed briskly through it. If I can't move briskly, I start over when I can. I do this because I know I will enjoy the book more if I immerse myself in it. If you spend six months reading Great Expectations, you might forget the intensity of Pip's reaction to Magwitch and then the scene of his return would be far less effective. I give myself a deadline: the library due date (before I owned them all), the anticipated arrival of a baby (that's how I finished Little Dorrit), the end of the year (Hard Times, just last week). The reason for this is...
- ...You have to remember you're front-loading the work. Even after a dozen novels, I still find that they start out slowly. It took me three tries to get through Pickwick Papers, but now it is my favorite. (Maybe. David Copperfield and Bleak House are also jockeying for the top spot.) I tell myself that I am going to read a certain number of pages each day (usually 30-40), and I can know that I'll be hooked by the end of the week -- I'll be sneaking a few pages in while the kids are playing instead of frog-marching myself through the day's quota.
This is true for the novels collectively as well as individually. The more Dickens you read, the more familiar his voice becomes. You realize that you've seen cousins of these characters in other books. You see the cues that a person or an event is important, and it becomes easier to enjoy reading the books instead of working at reading them. (You say, "We know already! We know you hate factories! Enough about the Satanic blight of air pollution!")
When I started my Dickens project, I had already read three of his books. Those three are good starter novels: Tale of Two Cities, Great Expectations, and Oliver Twist. I suggest you not start with Martin Chuzzlewit or Dombey and Son (those two deserve their obscurity) or with The Old Curiosity Shop (you might drown in the bathos).
As soon as I defend my dissertation I will read Nicholas Nickleby, and then I will have a Pickwickian party with my family. There will be punch, because I kicked off the project with David Copperfield, and Mr Micawber made it very clear that you can't have a celebration without punch.
*In my count I am including only his full-length completed novels -- not the Christmas novellas, not Edwin Drood, not the nonfiction or the plays. I'll read those someday, I expect.