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Teaching boys to love and hate books


Charles Dickens 'Household Words'It's probably fair to say that I put my three sons off reading. They had their bedtime/anytime stories for years, of course, but had to become used to my saying 'Just a minute' or 'Hang on' while I raced to the end of a page or chapter. And their father used to become hypertensive, to say the least, whenever he saw me grilling chops with a fork in one hand and a book in the other.

Still, I suppose one out of three is not too bad: my army son reads military history and biography. My eldest reads the papers sometimes, and occasionally succumbs to the charms of a particular style of book: the last I can recall was Gail Holst's Road to Rembetika, a fascinating account of the hashish inspired music that reached Greece from Asia Minor in the 1920s.

But as for my 30-year-old baby, Alexander, what is there to say? As far as I know, he has not even read my first book, in which he has a starring role, as in it I recount in dramatic detail the story of his birth, at which time I very nearly died.

He reads the Greek sports news; otherwise, he is the complete technophile, and changes his mobile phone almost as often as he changes his socks. I understand this up to a point: every so often the Kindle sings its siren song, but so far I have either put wax in my ears, or tied myself to a mast, figuratively speaking, because I value the book as object, as well as for a host of other reasons.

With Alexander's history, I didn't expect much when I showed him the marvellous present sent to me recently: a first edition of Charles Dickens' Household Words: Vol. I.

It is a thing of beauty, and was clearly designed to be a joy forever. Of an impressive solidity, it has a dark crimson and gold-embossed leather spine, and blue and beige marbled swirls with another tinge of crimson on the hard covers. Inside there is just a slight foxing on fine paper bordered in light black: every page is set in two columns.

Household Words, which appeared weekly, was edited by Dickens from March 1850 until May 1859. The title comes from the St Crispin's Day speech in Shakespeare's Henry V: 'Familiar in his mouth as household words.' And in A Preliminary Word, Dickens outlined the paper's principles, writing, among other things, that 'we hope to be the comrade and friend of many thousands of people'.

Sometimes, however, the readership was deemed not large enough, but in 1854, Dickens solved the problem when he started serialising Hard Times within its pages: circulation doubled almost immediately. Elizabeth Gaskell and Wilkie Collins also serialised novels in the magazine, which seems to have maintained a balance between fiction and non-fiction, with the latter predictably concentrating on the social issues of the day.

There are even letters from Australian colonists, while Caroline Chisholm and her migration scheme are mentioned twice.

Alexander came to call soon after the present arrived. 'Look what I've got.' To my utter astonishment, the technophile said not a word, but took the book, and opened it. Then he stroked, actually stroked the pages. He stood quite still, and so did I. Then he said: 'What a beautiful thing.'

For myself, I thought about the hands that had touched this volume and the lives that had undoubtedly been touched by it. And now, very unexpectedly, a life in the Peloponnese had been touched by it more than 160 years after its publication.

Alexander's girlfriend Nina is even more of a technophile than he is: if I want help with my mobile phone I consult Nina. She was with Alexander during the most recent visit. He had not been here long when he said, 'Mum, where's that Charles Dickens book?'

'Upstairs. Why?

'I want to show it to Nina.'

And Nina reacted as we both hoped she would.

In A Preliminary Word, Dickens had a message for technophiles: 'The mightier inventions of this age are not, to our thinking, all material, but have a kind of soul in their stupendous bodies which may find expression in Household Words.'

Right then, right now: Charles Dickens would have had much to say about post-modern technology. If only he'd had the chance. 

Gillian BourasGillian Bouras is an Australian writer who has been based in Greece for 30 years. She has had nine books published. Her most recent is No Time For Dances. Her latest, Seeing and Believing, is appearing in instalments on her website

Topic tags: Gillian Bouras, Charles Dickens, Household Words, Henry V



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Existing comments

A good one! I am blessed with children and grandchildren who just love books.

Bev Smith | 18 May 2011  

It may interest you to know that Dickens's journals (Household Words and All the Year Round) had around 30% of articles, including fiction, written by women, (if I remember the research properly, it's several years since I read up on this). A much higher percentage than most 'literary' journals these days, where often the percentage would be less than 10%. And no-one thought it necessary to entice boys into reading back then, regardless of the gender of the writer.

Penelope Cottier | 18 May 2011  

This is a perfectly crafted essay with an endearing message. It's along time since I read A Foreign Wife and it's a pleasure to see what a fine writer Ms Bouras has become.

lollygobbleblissbomb | 18 May 2011  

Thank you all or taking the time and trouble to comment.

Those are very interesting statistics, Penelope, and ones I was ignorant of. It's a strange world, and one that makes many more demands on our attention than it used to.

Gillian Bouras | 19 May 2011  

I can certainly relate to all of the sentiments in this (as always) well written article - being a book lover myself and having only one of my four children end up also an avid reader (though his reading is not on the same subjects as mine and he prefers poetry to fiction). The other three do read books occasionally but not every day....As for the grandchildren, none of the three older ones are interested in reading, at all.

How wonderful to receive such a beautiful present. And perhaps to find that youngest son will be drawn into reading after all.

Coral Petkovich | 19 May 2011  

It is heart-warming to know that Dickens has a message, still received readily as relevant by your technophile son.

John Whitehead | 21 May 2011  

My wife and I have been lucky to have several sets of "parents" - including my mother's first cousin & husband (now deceased) who lived at Strood in Kent. We could take one of two lines from London to visit. The easiest took us to Chatham Station. Chatham has a "Dick-en-Sigh-en" festival each year, a taxi-driver once informed us as she drove us across the river to Strood. In front of the station was a house on a blank wall of which was painted the words: Charles Dickens did not EAT, SLEEP or DRINK here. The implication being that he had done one or the other at almost every location possible in the region. Certainly Gad's Hill was close by. When I was a boy my maternal grand-mother gave me a set of Classics (Bible-thin gilt-edged pages within red leather covers) among which were several DICKENS' novels I had read read several times over by the time I was 13, 14 (Dombey and Son and Nicholas Nickleby) - something of the gothic in my own life then found a certain resonance!

Jim KABLE | 09 November 2011  

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