At midnight on New Year’s Eve 2012, as fireworks burst over Hyde Park, I was propped up in bed with a paperback feeling a terrific failure. The book was Charles Dickens’s Barnaby Rudge. I was 459 pages in and nowhere near finishing. Even if I’d read until dawn I would have been hard-pressed to manage the last 400 pages. I struggled on for another hour or so and then turned out the light.
A year before it had all seemed so possible. That Christmas, the books pages had been full of the approaching Dickens bicentenary. Literary figures nominated their favourite characters; there were advertisements for exhibitions, lectures and night walks through London; the BBC lined up its costume dramas. I felt embarrassed that I’d read so little Dickens – nothing since Great Expectations at school and a failed attempt at Little Dorrit at university. And so, in those dull, slow days between Christmas and January, I made a New Year’s resolution – to read all Dickens’s novels by midnight on 31 December 2012.
It seemed a daunting but not impossible task. Fifteen books (excluding Great Expectations) would mean one every twenty-four days. The shorter ones – Hard Times and A Christmas Carol – would take less than that, creating more time for the doorstops: Little Dorrit, Bleak House and Our Mutual Friend. The problem was that I wasn’t someone with time on my hands. I work twelve-hour days on the features desk of a national newspaper. Long evenings on the sofa with a good book are all too rare.
But gradually the novels became an obsession. Coming down with a bout of flu or a stomach upset was a blessing. ‘Hurrah!’ I’d think. ‘Forty-eight hours in bed to break the back of David Copperfield.’ I longed for trains to be held up and flights delayed so that I could press on with, say, the Venice section of Little Dorrit. Enough of prunes and prisms o
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