Charles Dickens -- where to start?
November 15, 2013 4:20 PM   Subscribe

I've read A Christmas Carol, and I sure love it, more often than not I read it on Christmas Day each year. But that's it for me. Where to start on any of these following titles: A Tale of Two Cities. Bleak House. David Copperfield. Great Expectations. Nicholas Nickelby.

I've been scared off of Dickens, by the 165 year old English, with all of it's colloquialisms, plus his books are seven million trillion pages long, or more, generally. A commitment. I've eyed them, I've listened to people I respect go on about Dickens, and about these books, especially A Tale of Two Cities and Great Expectations. I've wanted to give them a shot. But I haven't. So far.

In the past years but esp this past year, I've found that I love to have books read to me. I got a five dollar credit at Audible for signing up for something or other, I used that along with about $8 or $10 more and I've got all of these titles -- A Tale of Two Cities / Bleak House / David Copperfield / Great Expectations / Nicholas Nickelby. There they are, bigger than Dallas, sitting in my Audible library, ready to be read to me.

So. Is there A Certifiable Place To Start Reading Charles Dickenstm? Do I just start with the shortest time commitment -- A Tale of Two Cities, which clocks in at 13 hours 39 minutes -- do I just start there?

I'm not married to this, if I can't do it, well, hey, I just can't do it, or don't want to; I've thrown away ten bucks or fifteen at lesser things, to be sure. But I want to give it a whirl at least, before I shuffle off this mortal coil.

Where did you start? Where should I start?
posted by dancestoblue to Media & Arts (17 answers total) 14 users marked this as a favorite
Best answer: A Tale Of Two Cities is a great start, actually. It's reasonably short, for a Dickens novel, and the plot zips along. It doesn't have the dozens of "wait who are you again?" minor characters, and the story stays with a central group of important people, for the most part. It's also about the French Revolution, and involves lots of people sacrificing their lives for a cause, love, honor, nobility, and other Reasons. Which is pretty cool.

Also, they assign it to high school kids, so it can't be that hard. Feel free to skip that page-long opening sentence if you find it scary. It makes absolutely no difference to the plot and it's the sort of thing you appreciate better after having read the rest of the thing.

Dickens, in general, is not an author to be afraid of. He wrote for a popular audience, serialized in magazines, and his work is very approachable. That said, I think it's probably helpful to think of any of his more sprawling works as more like a TV show than like a movie. You're allowed to get lost in the little tangents, put it down and pick it back up again, etc. Don't fight it or overthink it, you know?

One thing that has drawn me into more of Dickens' novels -- and I'm sure this is blasphemy -- is watching bits and pieces of the many sprawling Masterpiece Theatre type miniseries adaptations of his novels. I don't know that I'd suggest watching a whole one and then picking up the corresponding novel (that would probably be boring because you know what happens), but I got into David Copperfield after watching an hour of the recent adaptation, and ultimately picked up Little Dorrit in the same way. I'm also curious to start watching Bleak House and Oliver Twist (which seems approachable enough without a BBC visual aid). If nothing else, this can help cement the characters in your mind and give you something to visualize. Maybe just watch the first installment and then dive into the book?
posted by Sara C. at 4:35 PM on November 15, 2013 [3 favorites]

I would start with David Copperfield. To me, it's the quintessential Dickens novel and it's partially autobiographical and a rumination on becoming a writer.
posted by mynameisluka at 4:43 PM on November 15, 2013 [2 favorites]

A Tale of Two Cities is great, but you can't go wrong with Great Expectations. No, you can't.
posted by k8lin at 4:51 PM on November 15, 2013 [3 favorites]

Bleak House is one of my favorites! There's a great mystery plot in there that I really enjoy. For me, the key to Dickens is to tackle him in small chunks. His works were serialized originally (and read aloud in many households, so you're experiencing him very authentically) and work well in shorter bits. It's easier to enjoy them that way-- part of the charm of Dickens is his meandering way of telling a story and his huge cast of characters.

Also, I've loved some of his books and hated others. If one of the above isn't working for you, try another before you give up.
posted by incountrysleep at 4:54 PM on November 15, 2013 [3 favorites]

Best answer: So lucky! Getting to read/hear theses books for the first time. (envy)

All of these titles are great. Agreeing with incountrysleep that you should remember these were published serially, in magazines, so can be easily read in chunks. And they're wonderful to listen to, if you have a half-way decent narrator.

For my taste, "Tale of Two Cities" is a little thin, but fine if you're feeling a little apprehensive about Dickens. "Bleak House" is my personal favorite. (It's not bleak, but very very dramatic, and full of Dickens' scorn for the law and how it beggars people.) "Great Expectations" is a cautionary tale, and contains the line that Mr. K and I hope to have on our tombstone: "What larks!" "Nicholas Nickelby" is full -- and I do mean full -- of plot, and lots of fun. "David Copperfield" is perhaps my least favorite, although I intend to reread it one of these days, just like the others. Critics suggest it was closest to Dickens' heart, and it is heartfelt. Perhaps it's the Perfect Little Beautiful Useless Wife that put me off. But still: we named our cat Trotwood.

Have a wonderful time!
posted by kestralwing at 5:30 PM on November 15, 2013 [2 favorites]

A Tale of Two Cities is very readable and probably a good start. My daughter and I read/listened to it and we both loved it, and she's 11 and I'm almost 40. I'll say that I could not finish listening to Oliver Twist on tape because the anti Semitism was so extreme. I generally can handle period bigotry, but it was so excessive.
posted by latkes at 5:44 PM on November 15, 2013

Best answer: There are a lot of things to like about Dickens. Which Dickens you'd like will depend on what features of his you respond the most to.

For whimsy and color and light-hearted, good-natured humor, Pickwick-- first, best.

The next few novels (Oliver Twist, Nicholas Nickleby, Old Curiosity Shop) start in on the tight Dickens plots and tear-jerking drama, but with fairly broad characters, and still plenty of whimsy and humor.

Subsequently, things get progressively darker and more complex, starting very mildly with Martin Chuzzlewit, through to Bleak House, which many consider to be his masterpiece. The later novels have deeper, more nuanced characters, more carefully-orchestrated patterns of motifs and imagery, and generally more realistic and depressing social commentary. Hard Times and A Tale of Two Cities are sparer, still beautifully plotted and written, with touches of humor; but they're also pretty disturbing and missing much of the sunny view of life that you get from, for instance, A Christmas Carol.

Where should you start? If you're just looking for a page-turner, go with A Tale of Two Cities. If you're looking to get a real entry into Dickens, then may I recommend the chronically-underappreciated Martin Chuzzlewit? It's a teeny bit more complex than much of the earlier stuff, still plenty dramatic and funny, and has an extended passage of satire on nineteenth-century America that's (imho) hi-larious. And finally, if you're big on more modern-type novels with complex characters and deep perspectives on the human condition, then David Copperfield or Great Expectations may be the way to go.

Enjoy! Yay Dickens!
posted by Bardolph at 5:50 PM on November 15, 2013 [1 favorite]

For what it's worth, I enjoyed A Tale of Two Cities, and some of the characters/images have really stuck with me. After A Christmas Carol, I think it's Dickens's most easy-to-tackle novel, so I'd start there. Great Expectations and David Copperfield are probably the most "modern" of the other novels you listed, so I'd try reading them next. I'd work up to Bleak House, because it's very sprawling and it definitely was written to be serialized.

One thing that has drawn me into more of Dickens' novels -- and I'm sure this is blasphemy -- is watching bits and pieces of the many sprawling Masterpiece Theatre type miniseries adaptations of his novels.

Yeah, I love the BBC miniseries of Dickens they show on Masterpiece Theater but have a lot of trouble getting into the books. The miniseries of Oliver Twist is very different from the book (I like it better) and has a very young Keira Knightley as Rose -- that's one of my favorite "movies." Nicholas Nickleby, Little Dorrit, and Bleak House are also wonderful, but follow the plot-lines of the book much more closely.

I think it's probably helpful to think of any of his more sprawling works as more like a TV show than like a movie.

That's a great suggestion, I'm going to try and remember that next time I try to tackle Dickens.
posted by rue72 at 5:56 PM on November 15, 2013 [2 favorites]

I LOVE me some Dickens. I even did some Masters level work on him. I started at the beginning, with the book that really set him on his journey, The Pickwick Papers. As with most Dickens, it's episodic, quite a funny comedy, but it's also terribly long.

For new readers, I always recommend Oliver Twist, as most folks are familiar with the basic story.

Of those you listed, I would listen to David Copperfield.
posted by John Kennedy Toole Box at 6:22 PM on November 15, 2013

Response by poster: I'm just back in the door, getting ready to go back out, thought to check the thread.

I knew I'd get thoughtful answers here, suspected that there would be a few that have read Dickens. I'm in luck, as always here.

Great, great answers. More, please. I love you guys so much. This place just rocks.
posted by dancestoblue at 6:45 PM on November 15, 2013

I'm doing the same thing! I read David Copperfield for school a looooong time ago, but the rest of my Dickens knowledge is slim to nonexistent. In fact, I may have just read the Copperfield cliff notes! But I've reread Jane Austen so many times I can just close my eyes and recite my favorites, and I wanted something from a similar period and with a similarly irreverent/satirical tone.

I'm starting off with Bleak House, because King and Straub seemed so enamoured of it in Black House (I'm a big horror fan and Black House is one of my favorites). It's sort of amazing to recognize the resonances between the two as I read. I'm really enjoying it so far. The rhythm of Dickens style was hard to get used to at first, which made it slow going, but I've sped up now that I have the knack of it.

Great thread, this will give me a roadmap for the rest of his work!
posted by kythuen at 8:49 PM on November 15, 2013

I would definitely start with A Tale of Two Cities or Great Expectations-both are really solid as "classics" as engaging and not too long. Bleak House I would save for until you're a more dedicated Dickens fan...I understand that it's supposed to be his genius work, but I found it slow going and much harder to finish. Worth reading someday though!
posted by lightgray at 10:28 PM on November 15, 2013 [1 favorite]

The Old Curiosity Shop is a Dickensian wonder. If you like Dickens, you'll read it in one sitting. (With bathroom breaks!)
posted by stillmoving at 11:12 PM on November 15, 2013

Of the titles on your list, I'd start with "Tale of Two Cities". Off your list, my own favorite is "Oliver Twist", with "David Copperfiled" coming in second.
posted by easily confused at 2:29 AM on November 16, 2013

Best answer: I'd recommend watching some Masterpiece Theatre versions of Dickens before reading the books. To get a feel for things.

Also, get a copy of "What Jane Austen ate and what Charles Dickens Knew." Read that first. That will help you with the references you may not understand. It will also give you a cultural and historical frame of reference.

David Copperfield, Oliver Twist and Bleak House are my favorites.
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 8:07 AM on November 16, 2013 [1 favorite]

If you haven't read The Pickwick Papers, begin there. It's very funny.

I'd hold off on Bleak House. It's very long, very dreary and encumbered by Dickens's rants. I found the characters unbelievable and unsympathetic. For a much more believable telling of very much the same story, read Trollope's The Three Clerks.

David Copperfield is great, so long as you hold firmly in mind that his mother is a comic character and not a monster.

I strongly agree with Ruthless Bunny about "What Jane Austen Ate and Charles Dickens Knew." Intersperse a chapter at a time when a Dickens novel begins to drag.
posted by KRS at 5:28 PM on November 16, 2013

Not ones to start with - so this is probably not an answer but to me the quintessential novels are the three "dark" novels

Bleak House, Little Dorrit and Hard Times

These are industrial Britain at it's cruellest and most heartless. Wonderful, bitter, angry writing.

Nicholas Nickleby is where I'd start. It's a great read.
posted by Mario Speedwagon at 12:14 AM on November 17, 2013

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