Wednesday, 8 February 2012

What the Dickens?

"Today's children have very short attention-spans because they are being reared on dreadful TV programmes. They are not being educated for long attention-spans." So says Charles Dickens' biographer, Claire Tomalin in yesterday's Independent newspaper.

I disagree. The ability to concentrate is innate, but like a muscle has to be flexed to extend its use, and reading Dickens is in fact a good way of helping our kids to do this.


Because Dickens writes in brilliant, episodic bursts designed to grab the attention with his larger-than-life characterisations, lots of dialogue, vivid descriptions and emotionally engaging plots. He wrote for the ordinary person, not the intellectual or the academic, and his storytelling reflects this making it more accessible than might be imagined at first glance. And, in spite of the possibly daunting extent of his books, the length of each chapter is actually quite short.

Great Expectations, for example, may be 440 pages long, but it's divided into 59 chapters, averaging 7.5 pages for each chapter. Any young person who can sit through a 30-minute episode of the BBC soap EastEnders will have no trouble romping through a few chapters, as a 15 year old I once coached found. He had to read Great Expectations for his English GCSE and was daunted by the task. How are you going to go about this, I asked? A chapter a day, was his initial, doeful suggestion. Pointing out that, given the number of chapters, this would take a while I suggested he read for as long as an episode of EastEnders a day, 30 minutes. Which he did, and discovered that he could easily do it and completed the whole book in his half term (7 day) break. He was delighted with himself, not least because he had enjoyed reading, and reading a classic like Dickens, and consequently found his GCSE work much easier having read the whole book. An additional pay-off.

So let's not patronise our young people and say they don't have what it takes to make reading Dickens possible. Instead, let's actively encourage them to read Dickens' novels for enjoyment and see them extend their ability to concentrate and improve their attention span.

And even if you've not read Dickens by the age of 11, there's still time. Dickens is one of those authors that can be read time and time again. His books are timeless in spite of their historical settings, because like any great fiction it is the lie we give to truth.

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