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How to Read the Novels of Charles Dickens

Conquering great literature whilst enjoying yourself.

By Sam H ArnoldPublished 6 months ago 4 min read
Top Story - November 2023

As many of you might recall, I have embarked on a journey to read all of the works of Dickens. 

Partly, I took this challenge on because he is my mother's favourite author. My mum is the person who got me into reading and remains my best reading buddy. 

The first thing I wrote in my journal when I started reading David Copperfield was: 

Dickens is actually funny who knew. 

This is just one of many enlightenments I have had. It has been hugely rewarding, and I am just starting. If you want to join me, here are some tips that helped me. 

Who is Dickens 

Let me tell you a little about Dickens and why he is such a big part of my life. 

On 7 February 1812, Charles Dickens entered the world in the lively city of Portsmouth, England. His life reads like one of his novels—filled with ups, downs, and unforgettable characters.

Growing up, his family struggled financially, and when his dad ended up in debtor's prison, 12-year-old Dickens had to work in a shoe polish factory to make ends meet. 

Books became his escape. Dickens devoured Shakespeare and the Arabian Nights, sparking a love for storytelling. At 15, he started as a legal clerk but chased his passion for writing under the name "Boz." His big break came with "The Pickwick Papers," a hit for its humour and characters.

As his writing career took off, he lived in Kent, including Canterbury, Rochester, and Dover. Each of these is an hour's drive from my house. Every year, his work is celebrated in Rochester with the annual Dickens Festival, a favourite of our family. 

Don't Take it Seriously

You can see from this why I have a love for his writing and why I would like to pass this passion on to others. Dickens is not considered an easy read, but in contrast, he is not as hard to read as Shakespeare, Joyce or Austin. 

My first tip would be not to take his books too seriously. They are meant to be funny, ironic and even fantastical in places. 

Although his books would be considered dark, they are not gloomy. They depict complex subjects such as poverty with a hint of humour. Anyone who has read the exchange between Betsy Trotwood and Edward Murdstone knows how clever Dickens is with subtle humour. 

Although writing about complex subjects of the age, Dickens was far from a realist in his writing. 

How to Read Dickens

There are several thoughts about which order you should read Dickens. Some will state that publication order is a good idea. 

This allows you to see the progress in the author's writing as he grows. However, this is not the only way to read him. 

You may decide to tackle the two books he writes in first person if you prefer. David Copperfield and Great Expectations are excellent starter books and the only two in first person. 

Another book I would suggest would be a good starting place is A Christmas Carol. This was my introduction to Dickens and the reason I have read more. I love A Christmas Carol for its solid characters and atmospheric setting. 

Every year, I sit and read it. I am looking forward to sharing an edited version with my eldest this year. 

Delay Gratification

Dickens originally published all his novels in serialised form. They were printed a couple of chapters at a time in magazines. Incidentally, if you ever want to buy an original of these magazines, you are looking at approximately $50,000.

The chapters were read, and people would discuss them and guess where the story went before the next edition was shared. 

This makes Dickens easier to read because if characters are introduced and appear ten chapters later, he adds an introduction to them so you remember where you first met them. Although he has many characters in his book to keep people reading month after month, you don't have to remember them all. 

For this reason, some bookworms suggest an excellent way to read Dickens in the method it was originally written. Read as if it was serialised. For example, if you wanted to do this with David Copperfield, you would read three chapters monthly. 

This is not for everyone, but some think it is brilliant. I started reading this way but love the stories too much to delay gratification.

Jump In

One of the biggest myths about Dickens is that his shorter books are more accessible. This is not true. A Christmas Carol is a relatively short book compared to David Copperfield, yet Copperfield is the easier to read. 

Another positive with Dickens's books is they are brilliant to reread. The stories and characters lead you to visit them more than once in a lifetime. A Christmas Carol is a regular reread for me, but not the only one. My next read will be Great Expectations, which I read at school. I can't wait to see how my reading experience changes.

Whether you have read Dickens before, tried to and given up, or are entirely new to him, I urge you to pick up one of his books on a cold winter night and give it a try. 

If you are a lover of Dickens, then which is your favourite?


About the Creator

Sam H Arnold

A writer obsessed with true crime, history and books. Find all my dedicated newsletters whether you are a true crime fan, bookworm or aspiring writer on Substack -

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Comments (12)

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  • Esala Gunathilake14 days ago

    Congrats on TS.

  • P. K. Gani5 months ago

    I was deliberating between a couple of classic titles for next years reading list. I'm now swaying toward a Charles Dickens novel, thanks for this insight, and congratulations on top story.

  • Zakarya Abbes6 months ago

    My favourite and best author in all time indeed Charles Dickens

  • Erica Wagner6 months ago

    ... I started reading Dickens after I was lucky enough to see the RSC's adaptation (8 hours long!) of Nicholas Nickleby in the 1980s. Changed my life. Great Expectations: my favourite, unsurpassed. My son adores A Tale of Two Cities, there's a GREAT audiobook read by Martin Jarvis. Thanks for this great piece!

  • Excellent and Deserved Top Story, We are featuring this in the Vocal Social Society Community Adventure on Facebook and would love for you to join us there

  • Jackson Gitau6 months ago

    i wish dickens was the book and the book dickens. they mellow. love the reading

  • L.C. Schäfer6 months ago

    Love this, I'm an uncultured swine and I think I've only read ACC. But I'm very tempted to give Great Expectations a go next after reading this 😁

  • JBaz6 months ago

    Test of a true author is time. Dickens has proven this, and I for one am glad he decided to become an author Congratulations

  • Kageno Hoshino6 months ago

    I love his books

  • Cindy Calder6 months ago

    I am a lover of all Dickens' book. I first read David Copperfield in 6th grade - a friend and I read it at the same time. It was quite the endeavor. Christmas Carol remains my first favorite, with Copperfield and Tale of Two Cities running closely behind. Congratulations on your Top Story - I loved it!

  • Kendall Defoe 6 months ago

    Not a bad plan. I last read 'Oliver Twist' and have been meaning to start at the beginning...

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