Monday, February 13, 2012

I have read all fourteen and a half Dickens novels.

Our Mutual Friend (1864-5) was the last Dickens novel I had not read, which means that I have now read them all.  Rather than write a post about this milestone, I will quietly celebrate on my own.

That took a lot less time than I had expected.  It was a little too quiet, if you know what I mean.  Guess I’ll write something.

I am never sure what people – by people I of course mean book bloggers – are really planning when they declare, after reading two novels, or maybe a novel-and-a-half, that they have fallen in love and will soon read “all” of an author’s work.  They should investigate the “all” a bit before making their empty declarations.  “All” can be pretty dire, even for a major writer.

Many years ago, I was the proud reader of all of Thomas Pynchon, not just the five published books but every published scrap of text uncovered by his lunatic bibliographers.  The highlight, from the completist’s point of view, was a short article published in a 1960 issue of Aerospace Safety magazine which had exactly one Pynchonian line, a joke about a flagman signaling “The plane ran over the general’s foot.”  Or so I remember.  Then Pynchon wrote the liner notes to a CD by a minor indie rock band called Lotion, and I thought forget it, I am not buying a goldang Lotion album in order to maintain my neurotic all-of-Pynchon status.  Now I have not even read all of his novels.  This is progress.

The “all” of Dickens is so enormous that it is unreasonable.  Fourteen and a half novels, check; five “Christmas Books,” check; the confusingly labeled “Christmas Stories,” at least half are still unread; and then there are travel books, and Sketches by Boz, and A Child’s History of England, just to stay with books that might be readable.  What to make of his plays, or his poems?  (Answer: nothing, ‘cause I’m not going to read them).  And all of that magazine and newspaper writing, masses of it.

The exciting thing about having read every Dickens novel is that I have completed a necessary step to re-reading not all but most of them.  Finally, some real reading!  It has been almost twenty years since I read The Mystery of Edwin Drood, so that one is tugging at me a bit, particularly since it is closely related to a plotline of Our Mutual Friend.  Been a while since Great Expectations, too, which prefigures OMF in interesting ways.  Bleak House I have read twice, but having read the rest in the series – with Little Dorrit and Our Mutual Friend, it forms a thematic and artistic trilogy – I want to go back to it.  Dickens is often revising the previous novel in the current one.  It is nice to be able to line them all up in my head.

Himadri, the Argumentative Old Git, provided the encouragement to check off Charles Dickens Novel #14 now rather than later.  If I write something  - I was going to say “more” but I have deftly avoided the novel this time – about Our Mutual Friend, I will bounce some ideas off of his pieces.


  1. I've read 9 (which includes 2 I've read half of and given up), and I've been stuck on 9 for the last ten years, after reading Little Dorrit and David Copperfield back to back. (OK, technically I've still got 10 pages to go in David Copperfield too).

    I've read all of Harper Lee's novels though!

  2. Congratulations for the feat! I've twice started and twice failed to finish a Dickens novel. There's something about his prose and pacing that puts me off.

    There are many writers I intend to read (and have read) completely, namely Saramago, Roth, Vargas Llosa, and Kundera, provided they're available. I'm not crazy enough to go after 1960s articles in obscure magazines :-)

    I also favour reading them chronologically, if possible, in order to appreciate their improvement (and mourn their decline).

  3. It all reminds me of that Dylan lyric:

    "You've been through all of F Scott Fitzgerald's books | You're very well read, it's well known"

    Was Dylan thinking of merely the novels (which wouldn't after all be any great feat), or was he counting in the short stories too?

    Or perhaps that wasn't really Dylan's point?

  4. Hm, I think Dylan's just taking the piss of anyone who thinks he's well read just because he's read all FSF.

  5. Ah, I see, someone was going to take me seriously on that.

    What I believe Mr Dylan is meaning here is that a knowledge of F Scott Fitzgerald's Jazz Age romances is no longer sufficient in these a-changin' times to fully appreciate what is "happening".

  6. Nice work. I'm still wondering if I should press-gang myself through The Haunted Man and the Ghost's Bargain for the sake of completism. On one hand, it's short. On the other hand, so's life. I remain undecided.

  7. I like chronological reading a lot, too. Dickens is certainly enriched by thinking about his books chronologically. Maybe I'll write something about that.

    Nine Dickens novels is rock-solid. I do not quite recommend reading all 14 1/2. I come close to recommending it. There are scenes in every one, even in a dud like Barnaby Rudge, that are fantastic. A few - e.g., A Tale of Two Cities - should be read for cultural reasons, if nothing else. I read that one last spring so, you know, "should." "Should" is meaningless.

    Pynchon is one of those writers who inspires a little crazy. Fortunately, my mental health has been restored, and I cannot even say I have read all of his novels now, much less all of the miscellanea.

    The great, great part of that Dylan lyric is "it's well known," even without his long "oouwnn." Dylan could be a mean cuss!

  8. Pykk - yes, worth it for the Tetterbys! I mean, worth it to anyone who has come as far as you have.

  9. Dickens? About 9, I'd guess. I've read all (possibly...) of Murakami's fiction.

    Trollope? 16 - and not even close...

  10. When Gravity's Rainbow was first published I was just totally amazed by it-I read it over and over.I read the two novels that proceeded it multiple times (I thinking Crying of Lot 49 should be one's first Pynchon)-then I read the subsequent novels as they came out-I would like to reread Mason and Dixon one day and for sure Against the Day-)-in another incarnation I and a friend of mine were one of the original contributors to Pynchon Notes-I have a lot of problems now with the article I wrote so many years ago but I still stand my the general theme of it-

    I just started an in publication order read of the novels of George Eliot-only 8-after reading her shortest novel, Silas Marner-some writers like Balzac, Trollope or Zola wrote so much that it is really hard to try to read all their works

  11. Pynchon Notes, no kidding! I might have seen your articles back when I was burrowing around in the Pynchon mud.

    Against the Day is excellent. The novel I could not bring myself to read is the newest one.

    The reason it is hard to read all of Balzac is not the bulk but the quality. It is, let's see, variable. Eliot should be more even, although some of the examples Rohan Maitzen likes to pull from Romola can make a person wince.

    With Dickens and Eliot we at least have 150 years of reputation to guide us. If I decide to read Barnaby Rudge or Romola I know what to expect. The fun or agony of living, productive writers, or Pynchon and Murakami is that you just never know. Is this the apotheosis of the writer's talents, or the point where I have to finally acknowledge the decline in quality that I have denied for the last three books?

  12. That is a milestone and a good one! I've only read three of his novels so far but one of them, Great Expectations, I read four times so that must count for something. The only author I can say I've read all the novels of is Jane Austen.

  13. Count for something - counts more!

    Austen is one of the few writers who really deserves the read-'em-all treatment, and even there I can quibble.

    Just to stick with novels, and working within the limits of my ignorance, and skipping authors who only wrote one novel, I came up with 12 writers of whom I have read "all": Goethe, ETA Hoffmann, Austen, Dickens, Hawthorne (and my lucky readers got to see me do it), Proust, Faulkner, Nabokov, Raymond Chandler, Flannery O'Connor, Calvino, and Sebald. I am probably wrong about some of these. Boy did Faulkner ever write some stinkers.

  14. Then I'll read it if I can find a copy again. The local library has Christmas Carol in book, audio book, children's book, Young Adult book, large print book, anthologised, on video, inked with the blood of parrots on rare goat vellum, etc, but absolute shortage of Tetterbys.

  15. I'm always going to keep at least a half Dickens unread - otherwise I won't have something to look forward to.

  16. The illustrations in the goat vellum edition are themselves worth the trouble. The fine shadings of color made possible by the parrot blood -

    zmkc, I recommend the first half of Barnaby Rudge as the half-Dickens you keep in reserve. Or if you want to keep something really good off on the horizon, either half of Bleak House. Or the "middle half" - just read the first and last quarter. You will have so many enticing things in the middle to perpetually look forward to.

  17. Dickens' poems are few and trivial, mostly songs and topical squibs. You won't miss much. "The Loving Ballad of Lord Bateman" is worth a look, though: Thackeray, Dickens, and Cruikshank having fun with an old ballad. What a trio!

  18. Doug, thanks - as I suspected.

    You raise an important side point here - someone has to read all of that marginal stuff in order to tell the rest of us about it.

  19. Actually, nobody does have to, really. But I was curious. You know how it is.

  20. I wish I still had Bleak House to look forward to. I remember well - and with regret - the moment I turned the last page and had to exit that world. But then I found Little Dorrit and Our Mutual Friend, so that was all right for a bit.

    So you would miss part of Barnaby Rudge over the unfinished Edwin Drood (haven't got to either of them yet)? I shall take your advice.

    I wish Dickens were here to fictionalise the Leveson stuff et cetera. Piers Morgan is purely a Dickens creation, for a start.

  21. You still have Bleak House to look forward to. I very much look forward to reading it for the third time.

    Edwin Drood is excellent. The preface of Barnaby Drudge is excellent. Don't miss the preface, at least.

    For the Leveson thing, you might be better off with Trollope. Or Balzac - the writer of Lost Illusions would be perfect.

  22. It's easy to be wrong about this, I guess, but I think it's a very gut thing when you decide to "go completist" on someone. Usually it does only take one book to make this judgment, and so far, for me, it hasn't led me far astray (although there are far too many on the completion-list that are far from completion to say for sure). Because it's not really about that one book you read, but about whatever you felt able to "see through" that book and say "this guy (or gal) is for me."

  23. Pure gut, or gut plus outside knowledge? I mean, for someone going about the completist declaration process sensibly, if such is possible.

    Nabokov and Melville, to pick a couple of yours, are high status choices.

    I have this example in my head of the Wilkie Collins Classics Circuit from a couple of years ago, when lots of first-time readers were declaring their completist love, and I kept thinking "Y'all oughta look at the third photo down."

    One of those declared completists was Eva at A Striped Armchair. Her, I believe - she'll do it! All of Wilkie Collins. Yeesh.

  24. Yeah, those are definitely high-status choices, but I think there are lots of different scenarios.

    F.M. Ford: two (at least) unbelievably amazing novels, plus an as-yet-to-be-determined amount of fluff--and a question of "how do you get from point A to point B?"

    Conrad: several very high-status and excellent books, plus many that go pretty much unread--"why? should they?"

    Some duds are just duds; some answer a (possibly) useful question.

    And sometimes, we don't care if a dud is a dud; there are plenty of lovable duds, if the writer is still lovable for you.

    I guess I'm saying I think the completism-desire should be mostly taste-based, and to hell with everything else. Unless you are a a pro, in which case your interests are simply different.

  25. Yes, the pros are covering the field, and have different, narrow criteria. Sometimes those criteria say: "Read every W. Collins novel." (Response of pro is not "Hooray!")

    Ford, that'll be a rough one. I'll be happy to read what you say about Zeppelin Nights (1915).

    Sometimes you just have to go see for yourself, there is no doubt about that.

  26. That wasn't sarcastic, by the way. What the heck is Zeppelin Nights, co-written with Violet Hunt? Now I want to know.

  27. I know, me too! Also, these! How can I not want to read all of Ford's English Review?

  28. Only 15 issues, not even completely crazy. Full of Conrad, James, Wells, so some of it should be readable. Huh. Even the ads are interesting.

  29. I am rereading Hard Times after a 15 year or so break. Very polemical book so far, 25 percent done. Interesting writing style from other recently rereads, great expectations and oliver twist. It also, i think, the shortest of his novels which is one reason I decided to reread it.

  30. Hard Times is a weird one for Dickens. Don't trust him on Utilitarianism!