This week you may have seen the Google doodle that marked the 200 birthday of Charles Dickens. Sometimes the dates they choose to honor can feel eccentric or narrow or precious, and sometimes you are the exact target audience and think " THAT"S RIGHT!"
I have read every novel Dickens wrote, many of them many times. A few, like Great Expectations or A Christmas Carol, I began with so young and have read so often, that they shaped my very sense of language, time, and that unnameable inner sense, how stories are.
For a twentieth century child, perhaps the most vivid effect that reading Dickens has on you when young is to produce a startling sense of strangeness, of otherness---a world of things, objects, atmosphere, smell, of roles and words that are as unknown in your daily life as if they were a fictional society on Mars: coal and fog, orphanages and servants, waistcoats and wigs, horse-drawn coaches and treacle and gruel and ale and stockings and child servants and stick-weilding teachers and shivering exile in a vast dark London and incredible rescues and compassionate, just-met strangers who take you in.
And at the same time, those same stories fill you with a sense of startling recognition, of familiarity, because Dickens' stories always feel as if their spine, somehow, is shared with fairytales and ur-stories, primal legends and myths about lost parents, unrecognized merit, miraculous meetings and recovered love.
Dickens's stories in one way another at their heart usually figure the child or the outsider, not only lost, but shamed, powerless, rejected. And at the same time, these works provide a voice--often the author's--saying "this didn't just happen," and "what does it mean about our society that this is how things are?" As a young adolescent struggling with my own culture's (and consciousness's) overpowering narratives that insist that suffering, injustice, pain, humiliation, loss, are just the way it is (and you deserve it), I found in Dickens a way to experience the hopefulness and pleasure of imagining, what if it doesn't have to be?
Of course, I realize that for many people, that isn't the effect he has at all. Instead, reading Dickens may produce a feeling of oppressive boredom, of excessive alienation, creating ---not a forgettable indifference--but an absolute distaste, a revolt against a canonical burden forced on them by stifling schoolmasters (especially sad because Dickens loathed bores). A friend of mine, a great reader, has told me that reading Dickens (for the briefest of spaces) "makes her want to poke her eyes out!" Well! I must clutch my thick paperbacks and recognize that the Dickens audience is, by the very nature of things, a limited one, a lingering, but slowly retreating and shrinking body of readers for whom Dickens remains a warm touchstone, the author of a living, vivid imaginary space, a fictional city that at the same time provides a path into actual history, someone who speaks to our personal inner lives of loss and abandonment and hope.