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A Christmas Carol to children
Celebrations of Dickens' bicentenary this month has lead to a widespread reappraisal of his literary work. A common consensus is that the writer, who achieved unprecedented popularity in his own time, has an enduring appeal. Dickens is still being read and, it is assumed, will continue to be read in the years to come. But questions are also being asked as to whether the children of today can enjoy and appreciate the works Dickens in the way that their parents and grandparents generations did.
For Dickens' biographer Claire Tomalin, it is the author's insistence on the importance of working class lives in his works that sets him apart from many of his contemporaries. In his 1842 visit to America, he would stress that "unimportant" and "peripherhal" people were just as interesting to write about as so called "great people." The works, which frequently offer a sharp critique of social injustices, still resonate in our contemporary world. Tomalin contends:
You only have to look around our society and everything he wrote about in the 1840s is still relevant - the great gulf between the rich and poor, corrupt financiers, corrupt Members of Parliament, how the country is run by Old Etonians, you name it, he said it.
However, Tomalin caused some alarm last week when she expressed a belief that today's children do not have the sustained attention span necessary to read Dickens or his somewhat long-winded contemporaries. The novels of nineteenth-century literature, which Henry James famously referred to as "loose baggy monsters," require prolonged concentration and dedication, something that Tomalin feels children today no longer possess. According to Tomalin:
Today’s children have very short attention spans because they are being reared on dreadful television programmes which are flickering away in the corner. Children are not being educated to have prolonged attention spans and you have to be prepared to read steadily for a Dickens novel and I think that’s a pity.
It's certainly the case that children have more forms of entertainment to choose from today than ever before, leading to shorter attention spans. Paperback book characters such as Young Pip, Oliver and the Artful Dodger now have to compete with sophisticated forms of entertainment from televisions and the latest games consoles.
However, there are many who disagree with Tomalin's view that these technologies affect the ability of children to enjoy the literary classics of Dickens. Maxine Sharkey, subject leader for English at Springfield School in Portsmouth, where Dickens was born, was quick to insist that Dickens was very much a part of the curriculum and that the study of his works is in fact thriving. Interestingly, she has observed that in many cases, the interest of students in reading the novels was sparked by their exposure to television adaptations of these works. Sharkey claims:
Many students were enormously enthused to further their study of Dickens after watching the television adaptations of both and which were screened over the Christmas period. Dickens is very much alive, well and speaking to the current 'younger generation'.
It is when they read the works of Dickens for themselves that children will discover the wonderful characters and storylines that have made this wonderful master of suspense such a popular novelist over the last two centuries. If they are prompted down this path by film or television adaptations, than perhaps this is not in itself a bad thing. And rather than setting the obvious pleasures of newer technologies for children in opposition to the time honoured tradition of book reading, it may be more constructive to consider how these technologies can be usefully employed to promote a love and understanding of great literature.