A Sigh of the Loss of the Age When Dickens Mattered

As Dickens wrote, we live in the best of times, we live in the worst of times. I’m giving a couple of guest lectures at BSC for my friend Kimberly Crowley. The novel we chose together is Charles Dickens’ “Great Expectations,” published in London in 1861, at the same time the American Civil War was beginning.

The students are smart, engaging, and eager to learn. They have way more street sense than I had at their age, and they have been exposed, in their short lives, to a breathtakingly wide range of cultural stimuli.

Still, I don’t think I have had much success with Dickens. I certainly don’t blame them. But I feel a powerful sense of loss. It is possible that we truly live in a post-literate time. People read, of course, perhaps now more than ever, but the number of people who read Dickens (1812-1870) or Dostoevsky, etc. is diminishing rapidly until I think we may be reaching the collapse point.

There was a time not so long ago when you could walk into any college literature course anywhere in the English-speaking world, slap a Dickens novel down on the desk, and expect students to have read it a week hence. And most of them would do so. It would not be easy reading. But they would do it, because there was still widespread agreement that it was important to read such books, and our K-12 educational system still worked hard to prepare young people for such challenges.

In my time, the only way around actually reading a classic was Cliffs Notes. The stigma of being caught consulting such a cheater’s guide was huge. Today, thanks to the Internet, there are hundreds of websites dedicated to Dickens and “Great Expectations,” many of them outstanding, some with sample student essays, and all with the kinds of study questions that help you get through a hard book for the first time. Today it is possible to have a serious encounter with a great novel (or biography, or work of philosophy or theology) without ever reading the book. Think of that.

I’m a slow reader — I believe it has held me back in life — so I have to really commit myself to read a book as long as “Moby Dick” or “Crime and Punishment.” If I started reading “War and Peace” today, and only interrupted my reading long enough to sleep and eat, I’d need a very long week to get through its 1,440 pages (567,000 words). And who ever has such a week of unstructured time?

I’m both a professional reader and old enough to have been educated in the “big hard book” tradition of American education. If I find it hard to carve out enough time to read “Great Expectations” (185,000 words, 500 pages), imagine how much harder it is for students, who did not grow up in that more bookish era, who are usually working part or full time in addition to taking college courses.

Besides, these young people have never not known television. I grew up when there were just two channels, when you had to get up out of your chair to turn the channel, and when the broadcast day ended after the nightly news. These students grew up in a world saturated by media; now they can watch or hear virtually anything on demand.

Most television remains the “vast wasteland” that FCC chairman Newton Minow described back in 1961, but with hundreds of cable or satellite stations, and a virtually infinite range of Amazon Prime or Netflix options, there is now always something of high quality worth watching. In that “matrix,” Tolstoy doesn’t stand a chance.

We have a breathtaking array of ways to entertain ourselves. In Dickens’ time, there were few. We must simply face the truth. Books have come to play a pretty minor role in personal entertainment in the 21st century. I believe it is important not to wring one’s hands and bemoan this loss as if it were the “death of civilization as we know it.” I certainly don’t think it does any good to browbeat college students for not knowing what they have never been taught or expected to know. We must meet them where they are, and give them the tools they will need to thrive in the decades through which they will lead their adult lives.

But. We are all subject to the human condition. By which I mean that we all dream beyond our capacity to achieve. We all know jealousy, envy, and impossible longings. We all have self-doubts. We are all subject to waves of self-destructive activity. We all have periods when we doubt our faith. Everyone steps back from time to time to wonder what it’s all about, what the meaning of life is, how old and big and purposeful the universe is, and how it came to be.

We wonder why we were born, what our larger purpose is, and where we go when we die. All of us, I believe, bear scars that cover soul wounds that can never fully be healed. All of us do things we know are wrong, and then we wonder how that could have happened. And we know ecstasies that are impossible to communicate to others.

That’s part of what I mean by the “human condition.” Where do we turn for clarification, for insight, for possible answers? Some turn to God and prayer. Some turn to priests and pastors and psychologists. Some turn to family and friends. I turn to all of these for help, but principally I turn to the humanities, the set of texts that wrestle incessantly with these very questions.

I’m not trying to generalize for the culture at large, but I know I don’t speak merely for myself or English majors, when I say the world will be a lesser place without Charles Dickens in it. Dickens gets at some aspects of the human condition better than anyone else who has ever tried.

Dickens illuminates the life of anyone who has experienced family dysfunction (and who has not), anyone who has felt the heartlessness of the society in which she or he lives, anyone who has been damaged by the pace and the cost and the injustices of the legal system, anyone who has any form of obsessive compulsive disorder, or lives with someone who suffers from that malady.

Dickens’ ability to explore and unpack the human character is stunning. His prose sometimes takes your breath away. There are passages in Dickens so great that you literally have to get up from where you were sitting because something in his way with words, some offhand psychological insight, some perfect detail, or his ability to articulate what you already knew but could never have put into words, forces you out of your seat.

At that glorious moment you want more than anything else someone on earth to share the experience with. The terrible loneliness of reading is that there is almost never anyone to call or write or reach for in the dark.

But the chief reason to read Dickens is the almost infinite pleasure he provides if you can steal a few hours from the noise and pace of our times, sit in a good chair, and surrender to the imaginative universe of one of the world’s greatest geniuses.

Start with "Great Expectations."