When Charles Dickens began writing his first novel—in 1836, the year before Victoria took the throne—the literacy rate in England was less than 50 percent. By the end of her reign, in 1901, it was 97 percent. More than any writer of the time, Dickens helped close that gap. He did it by publishing stories that people desperately wanted to read and creating a market for thousands of other writers to do the same.
It’s only fitting that so many of Dickens’ novels, which I’ve been reading and rereading in advance of his Feb. 7 bicentenary, involve plots or subplots or scenes that pivot on learning and literacy. There’s Hard Times, which is all about the pitfalls of narrow-minded, fact-driven pedagogy, with no room for make-believe. In Great Expectations, a mysterious benefactor funds Pip’s education, setting him up as a gentleman but also setting him apart from his uneducated guardian Joe. In Our Mutual Friend, the first thing the illiterate dustman Mr. Boffin does on inheriting a fortune is to hire a man to read to him nightly from Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. One of Oliver Twist’s early assignments in Fagin’s hard-knock school of thievery and pickpocketing is to absorb the lessons from a compendium of crime stories. The sensitive young David Copperfield finds refuge from the cruelty of his stepfather in his late father’s collection of classics, from Robinson Crusoe to Don Quixote.
(LIST: The All-TIME 100 Novels)
As I wrote last week, Dickens knew himself to be a transformational figure in literature. (It wasn’t for nothing that he called himself the Inimitable.) Part of what makes his prose style so singular and so enduring is that he was writing, quite consciously, to bridge the gap between illiterate and literate audiences. He made it both a theme and an ambition of his fiction. He had trained to be an actor, and the aural quality of language was always on his mind. As his novels circulated serially in magazines, they were often read aloud among families and communities, and eventually Dickens performed scenes himself, in his series of wildly popular theatrical reading tours. That wasn’t just a clever innovation in publicity. It was a way to expose his work to the many people who, at the beginning of his career, weren’t actually capable of reading it. You could be a gentleman and enjoy Dickens, or you could be humble Mr. Boffin, who only knows the letter B. This strategy broadened his audience, primed them and motivated them. And it shaped his style. All those characters with funny names and verbal tics and signature accents—their words beg to be spoken. Even his most complex sentences have a natural rhythm to them. They work out loud and on the page.
By the time Dickens died in 1870 he had set in motion the rise of the reading public, and all writers and publishers since have fed its voracious appetite. There’s no better picture of the cutthroat scene he left behind than George Gissing’s 1891 novel New Grub Street, which tracks all the main players: the ascent of the professional critic and agent, the plight of the literary novelist, the triumph of men who write for money, not for art. At the end of the novel, one of its publishing visionaries talks about his plans for a new periodical:
I would have the paper address itself to the quarter-educated; that is to say, the great new generation that is being turned out by the Board schools, the young men and women who can just read, but are incapable of sustained attention. People of this kind want something to occupy them in trains, and on buses and trams. As a rule they care for no newspapers except the Sunday ones; what they want is the lightest and frothiest of chit-chatty information—bits of stories, bits of description, bits of scandal, bits of jokes, bits of statistics, bits of foolery. Am I not right? Everything must be very short, two inches at the utmost; their attention can’t sustain itself beyond two inches.
You can see the contours of our own publishing scene so clearly in his words; it’s as if he’s describing a web aggregator. As for the two inches, technology has taken us there: that was me this morning, reading Hard Times in tiny screen shots on my iPhone, riding the subway to work.
Nobody writes like Dickens anymore. There are authors who write as well or better, but they do it differently. Tastes change, and a truly Dickensian 21st century novel would be as weird a cultural experience as a sudden rash of non-ironic Mondrians. But a lot of the expectations contemporary readers have when we pick up a novel are the ones the great 19th century novelists — Austen, Dickens, Eliot — established for us. Perhaps the most important one is that, even after all the dissonances of modernism and post-modernism, the majority of readers still expect a novel to be satisfying, whether it’s a mystery or a romance or science fiction, whether it ends with a birth, a marriage or a death.
Reading Dickens now, you can still feel the energy that drove that huge leap in literacy — the energy that created demand and then satisfied it. It’s wrapped up in the idea that reading can change lives, from an individual’s life to the collective life of a nation. It happens right there in the books, as Pip fulfills his great expectations and Mr. Boffin becomes a member of high society and all the sad children in the Gradgrind school in Hard Times learn to read but not to wonder, and David Copperfield, the voracious young consumer of fiction, grows up to be a famous writer.
For the next two weeks, I’ll be blogging about Dickens’ best novels, ranking my top 10. (He only wrote 14 and a half, so place your bets now on which ones won’t make the cut.) I love reading Dickens. I find his novels — even the bad ones — surprising and provocative and deeply emotional, and also illuminating as to the ways we read now. For anyone who thinks of him as homework, I’ll provide counter-evidence: the hilariously funny drunk scenes, the hilariously awful marriage proposals, the wicked satires, the inventive deaths (spontaneous combustion, anyone?). And I’ll plug my favorite TV and movie adaptations of his books. There’s no shame in watching Dickens instead of reading him. In fact, he’d have loved it.