My mother was a high school student in Exeter, New Hampshire during the late 1920s. When a boy asked her out for a date, she would sometimes say, “No thank you. I’d rather stay home and read Dickens.” While that sassy line did little to impress potential suitors, it did speak to her love of reading, a passion she passed on to me.

Unlike my dear mother, I never turned down a dating opportunity to read Dickens. In fact, I’d read only two of Dickens writings (“Great Expectations” and “A Christmas Carol”) until a few weeks ago.

While browsing “1,000 Books to Read Before You Die” by James Mustich, I came across the section on Charles Dickens. The book included eight of his works, second only to William Shakespeare, who merited 12 listings.

After reading more about Dickens background, I decided to tackle the novel that he considered his favorite: “David Copperfield.” That choice proved sound, as “David Copperfield” really does deserve its reputation as a literary classic. The reader encounters several memorable characters: his devoted caretaker Clara Peggotty; his charming but manipulative boyhood friend James Steerforth; the unctuous Uriah Heep; the consistently cruel Murdstones; the sweetly irresponsible Micawbers; his childlike first wife Dora Spendlow; and many more. The long rambling story covers the full range of human emotions: love, hate, greed, loyalty, hypocrisy and kindness. It also includes social commentary on classism in England, a recurring theme in Dickens books. The novel is narrated in the first person by David Copperfield, himself, and he grows in insight and confidence as the story progresses. Some reviewers have noted the autobiographical nature of many elements of the book.

It takes time, for sure, to get used to Dickens’s writing style, but I managed to do so after a few pages. And some overly long descriptions required skimming, at least for this reader. Some people might argue, not without reason, that Dickens should have had a good editor to trim his meandering writing style. In fairness, many writers of that era specialized in writing long descriptive passages. Take “Moby Dick” by Herman Melville, for example. The point is this: “If you want spare prose, read Hemingway, but let Dickens be Dickens.”

I emerged delighted that I had completed the reading journey, and I plan to tackle “The Life and Adventures of Nicholas Nickleby” in the near future.

I was fascinated to learn that all of Dickens’s novels were first published in serial form. Moreover, he would sometimes change the plot narrative of a novel depending on the comments of readers as the serial progressed. Dickens also invented several words, which have become part of our lexicon: “doormat,” “flummox,” “bah-humbug,” “abuzz,” “rampage” and “the creeps.”

As a writer, I’m blown away by the volume of Dickens writing over a relatively short 58-year life span. He wrote over a dozen novels as well as a number of plays and short stories. Moreover, he accomplished that prodigious feat without benefit of a word processor or spell check or Google. How on earth did he keep everything straight? How did he maintain an adequate supply of paper and ink? I would love to spend a few hours with Dickens to learn about his writing process and get a better sense of how he did all he did. I’d also be interested in his views of today’s contemporary novelists.

Oh, on a related note: I’d love to spend an evening with my mother so I could find out which other writers she might prefer to read over accepting an invitation for a date.

David Treadwell, a Brunswick writer, welcomes commentary and suggestions for future “Just a Little Old” columns. [email protected]

Comments are not available on this story.

filed under: