The summer before my teen daughter started high school, she was faced with a no-win situation: either read David Copperfield or drop out of Honors English before she even started it.
At the time (with graduation looming, it seems so long ago), I was upset on her behalf. First of all, I think our kids are thoroughly over-scheduled and have too much homework all year. It would have been nice for her to have a summer vacation that actually was a summer vacation. Second, I was disappointed that a course which attracts so many more girls than boys (estimating the percentages to be about 80/20 wouldn't be far-fetched) selected a book by a man rather than a woman. And, third, I worried that Copperfield, which is neither short nor easy, read without the benefit of a helpful instructor, would turn my daughter and her friends off Mr. Dickens — thoroughly and forever. Wouldn't Great Expectations have been a better choice?
For the record though, I never had anything against the title or the author as worthwhile literature. In fact, as I watched my daughter reluctantly read that summer, I realized that my own Dickensian education was not where it should be. I had been assigned maybe half a dozen of his novels in high school and college. And, that insignificant sampling was missing some of his most important titles.
Whether it was out of familial solidarity, an English major's guilt, or temporary insanity, I vowed to go back and read all of his works. I found an antique set of 30 volumes on eBay and began with The Pickwick Papers. When I told people about my project, I usually received a one-word response.
Some people said, "Wow."
But, most said, "Why?"
And, that "Why" wasn't an actual inquiry into my reasons for the undertaking. It was more like an abbreviation for "Why in God's name would you ever even consider that?" and accompanied by a distasteful wrinkling of the nose as if the person smelled rotting fish somewhere on a dark and foggy nineteenth century London pier.
From Pickwick Papers, I moved right into Oliver Twist (a story I was familiar with from countless childhood viewings of the 1968 musical; I had a crush on Jack Wild as the "artful dodger"). But, I found keeping track of a new list of colorful characters a little confusing. After I finished, I decided to intersperse contemporary titles (sometimes two or three ... or ten) between the different Dickens novels. Of course, I realized that this would take a lot longer, but it's not like I was going anywhere.
Some of the most famous titles I read (or re-read) were just marvelous, like Bleak House (which was featured in a course I once took called "Images of Women in Great Literature") and A Tale of Two Cities, Little Dorrit and Nicholas Nickleby. I disrupted my chronological progress a bit so that I could savor A Christmas Carol during the holidays. I struggled through a couple (okay, maybe more than a couple) of absolute snores. And then completely fell in love with Dombey and Son, whose heroine Florence was so pathetic that she made The Old Curiosity Shop's Little Nell seem like a Kardashian.
Last week, I completed The Mystery of Edwin Drood. Except, of course, I didn't and couldn't actually "complete" it because the great Mr. Dickens became the late Mr. Dickens before he gave the novel an ending. Apparently, he was done. And so, apparently, was I.
For those of you who asked, "Why?," I can in all honesty say that I enjoyed the exercise a great deal, most of the time. And, even when a particular title (or particularly long and boring passage) was a challenge, I got through it and was generally rewarded for my effort.
For those of you who said, "Wow!" ... well, I quite agree.
Now, I'm putting the set back up on eBay for some other enthusiastic peruser. And, I'm moving on to The Complete Works of William Shakespeare.
My daughter, who (as I predicted) will never be a Dickens fan after her summer with Copperfield (alas, she was one of the people who asked "Why?"), leaves for college in three months, three weeks and four days.
I expect to have a lot of time for reading very soon.
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