Children ‘not capable’ of reading Dickens

CHILDREN are not being educated to read with the attention span necessary for a Charles Dickens novel, an expert on the author has said on the eve of the 200th anniversary of his birth.

Claire Tomalin, acclaimed biographer of Dickens, said that his novels and their depiction of an unfair society were “amazingly relevant” to the current day.

But she also decried the state of modern teaching for ill-equipping children nowadays with the attention span required to read his classic, but lengthy, books.

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She said: “Today’s children have very short attention spans because they are being reared on dreadful television programmes which are flickering away in the corner. Children are not being educated to have prolonged attention spans and you have to be prepared to read steadily for a Dickens novel and I think that’s a pity.”

Ms Tomalin said that the medium of television was just one where Dickens has been adapted along with film and musicals, making his characters household names.

She added: “Very simply, he is, after Shakespeare, the greatest creator of characters in English. He has gone on entertaining people since the 1830s and his characters’ names are known all over the world.

“When he went to America in 1842, one of the points he made was that the ‘unimportant’ and ‘peripheral’ people were just as interesting to write about as ‘great’ people.

“You only have to look around our society, and everything he wrote about in the 1840s is still relevant – the great gulf between the rich and poor, corrupt financiers, corrupt members of parliament, how the country is run by old Etonians… you name it, he said it.”

Simon Winder, publishing director at Penguin, said Dickens’ portrayal of London effectively “invented” the way we collectively view our past. He added: “I think he is amazing. He more or less invented much of the world we lived in. London isn’t objectively the most interesting of places, but he has made even the most dirty of back streets into an exciting place.

“His imagination has enshrined England as an exciting place through the nature of his villains, his heroes and his enthusiasm for life.”

Dr Christopher Pittard, senior lecturer in English literature at the University of Portsmouth, said that Dickens became hugely popular through his ability to combine stinging political and social commentary within believable and enjoyable storylines.

Dr Pittard dismissed the comparison of Dickens’ serialised novels as soap operas of their time. He said: “Although they were immensely popular like soap operas, his novels had a completely different mode of narrative. The soap opera is continually ongoing, while his novels have a very definite shape to them. There’s a hidden structure which isn’t comprehensible at first; they are more like the DVD boxset of their time.”

The anniversary will be marked by a wreath-laying ceremony at his grave in Poets’ Corner, at Westminster Abbey.