Five Ways You Can Celebrate Charles Dickens’ 200th Birthday

Charles Dickens 1812 - 1870 (IncWell.com/Library of Congress)

“We meet on this day,” Charles Dickens said in a speech marking the tricentennial anniversary of William Shakespeare‘s birth, “to celebrate the birthday of a vast army of living men and women who will live for ever with an actuality greater than that of the men and women whose external forms we see around us.”

Of course, the same can be said, on Dickens’ 200th birthday, of his characters – that, even though they are fictional creations, they shine far more brightly in our imaginations than real, historical figures, or even people in our own lives.

So when we commemorate Dickens’ birthday (Feb. 7) are we celebrating the life of the masterful Victorian storyteller or the lives of his invented characters? The answer is unclear, probably as it should be.

As Prince Charles lays a wreath at Dickens’ gravesite in Poets’ Corner at Westminster Abbey, he will be joined by what is believed to be the largest gathering of Dickens’ descendants in one place ever, some 350 of the writer’s relatives, according to The Telegraph.

So, short of crashing the Dickens family get-together, what can you do to celebrate two centuries of Charles Dickens?

Here are five possibilities:

1.  Tune into the Global Dickens Read-a-thon.

This project is a massive 24-hour reading of Dickens selections from 24 countries around the world, ranging from China to Albania, Pakistan to Russia. Sponsored by the British Council, each of the countries will contribute readings, beginning with Australia and Dombey and Son. Hard Times will be read from Iraq, Our Mutual Friend from Syria and the final selection will be from The Mystery of Edwin Drood, via Romania.

Follow each of the new excerpts, about five minutes each, on @BritishCouncil twitter feed, or with the hashtag #Dickens2012, or go to the Council’s webpage for more information.

Martin Chuzzlewit – Albania from British Council Arts on Vimeo.

And for other great Dickens events throughout the year, go to http://www.dickens2012.org.

2. Prove Dickens biographer Claire Tomalin wrong.

Claire Tomalin, one of Dickens’ leading biographers, has created a bit of a stir recently by suggesting that new generations of readers don’t have the attention span necessary to read Dickens.

In an interview with the Press Association, Tomalin said, “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.”

“Today’s children have very short attention spans,” the biogreapher added, “because they are being reared on dreadful television programs which are flickering away in the corner.”

Maxine Sharkey, a teacher from Portsmouth, the town where Dickens was born, countered Tomalin, telling the Huffington Post UK that among her students “Dickens is very much alive, well and speaking to the current ‘younger generation’.”

3. Prove Dickens biographer Claire Tomalin correct.

Portsmouth may be too much of an anomaly to judge the reading ability of today’s youth by. The City Council there is starting a program called Portsmouth Reads Dickens, in which every secondary school receives a full set of his work. Four thousand copies of Oliver Twist were also distributed to town residents. So they’re getting support and encouragement in their reading that other communities probably lack.

Ultimately, it might just be that most people are far more familiar with Dickens from television and film than from reading his books. He is commonly said to be the most widely adapted novelist in the world, with more than 300 adaptations from his works.

And to further support Tomalin’s theory, we also happened to notice this: the Guardian’s birthday series proudly offers shorter-than-short whip-around reads of the novels. “Too busy to read Dickens?” asks the headline. “Then try the digested read.”

“Tuesday is the day, and it is now too late to read those novels you promised you would when everyone first started talking about it,” writes feature writer John Crace. “But it’s not too late to read the digested read versions of three of his finest books, Great Expectations, Bleak House and David Copperfield.”

Go ahead, you know you want to.

4. Finish The Mystery of Edwin Drood.

No, we don’t mean you should finish reading it. You should finish writing it. As you probably know, the manuscript was incomplete when Dickens died in 1870. “What’s less well known is that Dickens died on purpose – to avoid having to finish it,” wrote mystery writer Gwyneth Hughes in The Guardian about her frustration at trying to write a script for an ending. There have been numerous attempts by other writers to finish The Mystery of Edwin Drood, including one by a man from Vermont in 1873 who claimed that he came up with his ending by communicating with Dickens’ spirit. In 1914, English mystery writer G.K. Chesterton set up a mock trial to solve the whodunit. And in the 1980s, there was even a Broadway musical, Drood.

5. Relax, enjoy reading Dickens slowly – he’s not going anywhere.

That’s a point that novelist Jenny Diski made in a Guardian piece titled, “The Charles Dickens bicentennial is quite enough, already.” Because of all the media hype over the anniversary, wrote Diski, “By two o’clock on New Year’s Day in this Dickens bicentennial year, I already found myself wishing that either he or I had never been born.” Today may feel like the epicenter of a Dickens tsunami, but, remember, anniversaries are generally arbitrary constructions. The current anniversary hoopla began months ago, and it’s going to continue for months to come. But the most  important thing is your sense of a personal relationship to the books and characters. So speed through the novels if you feel that compulsion, or slow down and read them at a leisurely or even meandering pace, if you prefer. They’ll still be there when you want them.