Between 2000 and 2010 I read a Dickens novel every year. Four years after I finished my Dickens project, I came back to Bleak House. This is a post about why I plan to work my way through his books again.
1. Because Dickens teaches us to pay attention. I have posted before about how the internet has left me with the attention span of a concussed fruit fly, but in my secret heart I didn't really believe it. My secret heart said, "I don't have an attention problem! I read lots!" Sorry, secret heart, but a return to Dickens has made it clear that you were delusional. Dickens says, "The world is full of important things. Notice them! Remember them! Or else you will be really confused on page 700!"
2. Because Dickens reminds us that we're all connected. In real life it is unlikely that the person you scarcely notice crossing your path will turn out to be the Key Player in unraveling both a troubling mystery and a legal tangle (don't you love Mr. Bucket?), but it happens all the time in Dickens. My 14yo views this as a bug; I am certain it is a feature. In real life there are more degrees of separation, but everyone you pass deserves consideration nonetheless.
3. Because Dickens encourages flow. Both languor and drudgery are enemies of joy: both Lady Dedlock and Jenny are unhappy specimens. But Esther immerses herself in her work -- as a cure for uncertainty, as a response to the blues, as a habit worth forming for its own sake.
4. Because Dickens shows us that life is short. This time through I was a little surprised by the body count in Bleak House: there are Coen Brothers movies in which fewer people die! The book is peppered with reminders that life is meant to be lived with purpose, that faith is meant to teach us to sow kindness in the present in preparation for eternity. (What happens if we sow pomposity and bloviation instead? Why, my friends, we bloviate. And pompose. Just ask Mr. Chadband. Is he not a riot? Does he not make you laugh out loud?)
5. Because Dickens knows that life is full of surprises. There is a thread that runs all through the novels of Dickens: time drives hidden things into the light. Sometimes this is a dread occurrence, but mostly it reflects a certainty that life is liberally sprinkled with good surprises. From piled-up detritus, from all the things we attempt to cast off and bury (and OH now I want to reread Our Mutual Friend and think more about rubbish collectors!), the truth will out and truth is intrinsically good.
6. Because Dickens says, "Be cautious about first impressions." I didn't remember the shifts we see in either Mr. Tulkinghorn or Mr. Bucket. And who would have guessed that Sir Leicester had so much good in him?
7. Because Dickens boosts your stamina. These days I worry that an 800-word blog post is too long. In a TL;DR world, an 800-page book is beyond the pale. The task of finishing a Dickens novel is a delicious (if occasionally bathetic) reminder that I can eat an elephant one bite at a time: if I show up, if I keep taking a whack at it, eventually I'll get there.