8 Feb 2012

Dickens in an Age of Distraction

Yesterday was the 200th anniversary of Charles Dickens' birth. Here's a cute little video about his...um...rather strange...life.

Do you read Dickens? Do you have a favourite? Mine's The Pickwick Papers. So funny.

This year I'll be introducing Jemimah to Dickens as part of AO5. We'll be reading Oliver Twist in Term 2, and A Christmas Carol in December. I'm sure she'll love them because they're her sort of humour. She loves caricature-like characters like Basil Fawlty, who are larger than life with exaggerated features and characteristics. This is so Dickensian.

Claire Tomalin, the author of the recent biography, Charles Dickens: A Life, has caused a bit of a furore this week by saying that although Dickens' novels, with their depiction of unfair society, were still "amazingly relevant", current education methods did not allow children to develop the concentration and attention span required to read his classic, but lengthy, books. Teachers, of course, have disagreed, but I'm afraid I think she's right. Have a read of both and see what you think.

The idea of a short attention span arising as a consequence, not only of television, but also of social media - twitter, Facebook, Google+ and even blogging is the introductory premise of Alan Jacob's book, The Pleasures of Reading in the Age of Distraction. He says:
I find myself particularly intrigued by the younger generation who have heard their cohort called "The Dumbest Generation," who are continually told that their addiction to multiple simultaneous stimuli renders them incapable of the seriously focused and single-minded attention that the reading of big thick books requires...Told over and over that they can't read, they begin to wonder why they should even try...I have heard talk like this from people up to forty and in a few cases older. Many say that they used to be able to read but since becoming habituated to online reading and the short bursts of attention it encourages - or demands - simply can't sit down with a book anymore. They fidget; they check their iPhones for email and twitter updates...
Sound familiar?

What about you? Has your attention span diminished since you started spending much of your life online? What about your children? Could they concentrate well enough to read Dickens? Could you?

I think Jemimah can, but I really don't know. I'll let you know later this year!

In case your attention span has diminished so much that you can no longer read Alan Jacob's book, here's a Vimeo video of him talking about The Pleasures of Reading in the Age of Distraction. Enjoy.


  1. It IS an age of distraction, and that distraction can be insidious. I am not sure that my attention span has diminished, but I AM sure I am a much fussier (or more discerning?) reader and viewer nowadays.

    My son amazes me with what he reads. He is equally at home with graphic novels as he is with lengthy literary tomes I would never attempt. But he also still re-listens to The Goon Show, and that makes me very happy!

  2. Jeanne

    My husband recently read The Shallows; what the internet is doing to our brains by Nicholas Carr. We were discussing this very matter and I have to confess I believe my brain is no longer proficient at reading deeper material.

  3. Well, I dislike Dickens ~ A Tale of 2 Cities did me in before I'd even heard of the French Revolution but I am perfectly capable of focused attention for prolonged periods. Heck, I read profound tomes through band & choir practise. It's t.v I have no attention for. I can't sit through a movie unless its exceptional & I drive Star nuts because I rarely last the length of a 30 minute show, let alone anything longer. Star's world needs to be pretty settled before she can concentrate on anything deeper than a graphic novel but she's ADD so has some excuse & is capable of he other ~ though I don't think she's tried Dickens either. She wasn't keen on the televised stuff ~ which I understand but I like my characterisation a lot more subtle than Mr Dickens generally manages & not so over the top. Generally. I still have a soft spot for Falstaff...

  4. My friend and I were JUST talking about this very subject. The ability to pay attention or enjoy ANYTHING really after being immersed in movies, internet, or video games....it takes a sorta "detox" from this stuff for me and my children after holidays/vacations from school to get back into just enjoying nature, literature, and just "being". It takes work to enjoy/learn in these ways, whereas we get accustomed to being entertained with NO output of any energy or of any sort required. Ack. I don't like that kinda living. I do like my Internet but I really need to keep all these things in proper perspective/amount of use.

    PS - I have yet to read ANY Charles Dickens myself. I started Little Dorit? and the language threw me. I have A Tale of Two Cities on my 2012 list and maybe I will try the one you recommended.


  5. None of my girls read Dickens to themselves during their homeschooling years, but two of them listened to me read Great Expectations, all the way through, at age ten, without any difficulties. Also A Christmas Carol, but that goes without saying.

    And, on a similar level, the current fifth grader and I are almost finished reading George Eliot's Silas Marner together. Again, I am not sure that she would have gotten much out of it herself the first time around, if I had just handed her the book. That's not so much because of the attention required but because of a few cultural things that we needed to unravel as we went along, and making sure she was following the timeline of the early scenes (there are some flashbacks). I also drew a page of the characters for her before we started; and we have watched few scenes from the 1995 movie with Ben Kingsley, via You-tube, just to get the idea, for instance, of what the New Year's dance looked like.

    So does having the books read to you not count as "reading" them, according to these articles?

  6. Re Great Expectations: that is, the girls were ten years old--I was a bit older. ;-)

  7. Because most of our curriculum consists of read-alouds, I am constantly amazed at the attention-span of my 8,7 & 4 year old boys. Now that the older 2 are independent readers, They will often curl up with a good book.

    Me on the other hand? I found that I found it hard to concentrate on a good book because I was heavily distracted by Facebook, Twitter and blogging. Since deleting Facebook and Twitter again recently, and choosing to back off from blogging, I have found myself being able to concentrate for longer periods again on good books.

  8. Oh joy! Indianapolis' main contribution to the culture war--the Hudson Institute!


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