Monday, March 21, 2011

A Tale of Two Cities, by Charles Dickens

I thought I had read this before, but once I got going I realized it must have been one of those "classics" I had attempted reading as a teen and then given up on it as stale and musty reading for English teachers. So now that I have actually got through the whole thing, I can say..... it's still kind of stale and musty reading for English teachers.

Why musty? The expressive language waxes impressionistic and the grammar somewhat experimental. Instead of writing a nice long paragraph, a la The Preamble to the Declaration of Independence, Dickens writes, in places, whole paragraphs of incomplete sentences. Reading such stuff is disorienting, however, reading ALOUD it makes for some decent storytelling. Using periods as dramatic pauses and the commas for places to take a breath, the place settings and dialogue materialize into something real. This is not the kind of stuff the texting generation would deal with well.

Why stale? The best lines of the whole book are at the beginning and at the end. "It was the best of times, it was the worst of times." etc., and "It is a far far better thing that I do than I have ever done." etc. show themselves as well-crafted, ornate bookends to a fair-to-middling work of historical fiction. Without a knowledge of the history of the French Revolution, a young reader may not understand the complex socio-economic structure that led to such feverish, and widespread, bloodlust that exhibited itself in the populace. "What? History is so boring!" a texter might say. "What does it have to do with now?"

Ah! What does it have to do with now? What doesn't it have to do with now? How might the French Revolution be repeated in Egypt, or Libya, or elsewhere? How might desperation manifest itself in a country where hunger, poverty, and despair become the norm for the majority? Unfortunately, so few of us involve ourselves in our own communities to see when bad may become worse, when worse becomes intolerable.

This should be required reading for teens despite some of the bloody scenes, but certainly parental discussions would help such young readers to navigate the "why's" and "how's" of such events. It may promise a long slog, but I think it's suitable to provoking earnest thought.


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