If you studied Charles Dickens in school, it wouldn’t be surprising if you got an unpleasant feeling whenever his name comes up. But it could be time for you to give this giant of English literature a second chance on his 200th birthday, which is today, February 7, 2012. He had a fabulous sense of humor and an inimitable genius for inventing unique characters on both sides of the good/evil divide—while at the same time picking to pieces the British legal system, industrial capitalism, the poor laws, and much more. And he’s full of surprises: The Mystery of Edwin Drood, his unfinished final novel, is one of the first modern-style mysteries.
To get into the proper frame of mind, read Howard Jacobson’s inspiring article published recently in the online edition of The Guardian (U.K.). If you find the essay convincing, turn next to one or more of the numerous Dickens biographies our library owns to fill you in on the twists and turns of the author’s fascinating life. For example, did you know that after an extended visit to the United States in 1842, Dickens wrote American Notes, making him one of the earliest notable (and not especially complimentary) observers of our national experiment?
Ultimately, though, you just have to read the novels themselves—of which there are more than 20—to really “get it.” Try Bleak House, a riveting story of the destructive power of the legal machinery on people’s lives, skeleton-filled closets, class prejudice, selfishness and unbounded generosity–and laugh-out-loud satire. It even includes one of the first modern-style detectives in the inimitable person of Inspector Bucket. David Copperfield, considered the most autobiographical of the novels, is another gem. Still with us? Then try the real litmus test: give some of the ones you read in school another try, such as Great Expectations and A Tale of Two Cities. You’ll be surprised at what you missed the first time around.
If you’d rather dip your toe in more cautiously, try some of the better video productions from our library’s collection, your local public library, or your favorite streaming video download service. You won’t be getting the full Dickens experience, though, even with the best of these.
The closest thing to an official website for this historic birthday is Charles Dickens 2012. The site contains a wealth of information about relevant TV and radio programming, exhibitions, dramatic productions, musical tributes, festivals, and the latest literary criticism. To add to the fun, New York City’s Morgan Library has mounted an exhibition celebrating the event, and its online exhibition support pages include a digital facsimile of the first edition of A Christmas Carol.