Nicholas Lezard: Happy birthday, Charles Dickens ... but I confess I always found your books hard work
ACCORDING to Claire Tomalin, his latest biographer, children no longer have the attention span to read Dickens. She has a point: last year, my 11-year-old's English teacher decided that the best way for the class to approach him was to watch A Muppet Christmas Carol. And they didn't have the attention span for the whole movie, either: they were only obliged to watch the opening scenes.
This can make us despair. We think of all the distractions available to us – distractions that are almost forced upon us, in fact – and wonder how on earth a long-dead writer, who indeed wrote at great length, can compete. Whether Tomalin actually has direct experience of children's attention spans these days I do not know, but we accept this on the nod, although what she blames are, quaintly, "dreadful television programmes", rather than games real and virtual, Facebook, Twitter, and whatever else can be squeezed into a life once all these have been dealt with. You know, like friendship, or meals, or homework and tidying one's room.
But I wonder whether we really should be worried at all. It might be a good idea to look at one's own past and ask oneself: honestly, did I ever have the attention span for Dickens when I was a child? I didn't. The idea of facing a long book produced in me a dull panic until I was, frankly, in my twenties. The experience of having to read Middlemarch in a week when I was 15 might have scarred me. And yet I not only love literature, including long books these days, I make a living (of sorts) from my appreciation of it (although I will always have a fondness for the pithy over the prolix).