A Tale of Two Writers

It’s hard to believe now, but there was a time when I hated the very idea of analyzing literature. I thought it sucked all the joy out of reading, a cold analytical dissection that disregarded pure emotional enjoyment. This was probably encouraged, unintentionally, by the sort of books they had us reading in junior high. There’s always a difficulty in providing appropriate reading assignments for advanced readers, since the sort of material that matches their reading level usually doesn’t match their maturity level at all. Our seventh grade advanced reading class was given the rather appallingly pretentious title of “Literary Seminar” and much of the material was of a similar flavor; stories and novels that ruminate on Deep Themes like the futility of human existence. Don’t get me wrong, there was a lot of quality, thought-provoking literature that I’d probably enjoy reading now. (Not to mention it was a battle for my parents to even get me into that class, since my IQ score wasn’t quite high enough for entry into the gifted program in elementary school, and they usually only allowed gifted students to take honors classes. I certainly would have been far more miserable, bored out of my mind, in the mid-level reading track.)

But I was 12. I didn’t want to ruminate on the futility of human existence. When I read of bleak dystopian futures in Fahrenheit 451 and “Harrison Bergeron,” I just got annoyed and angry and wanted to throw the books across the room. I wasn’t ready for them. Being expected to read and understand books intended for grown-ups, at that age, soured my attitude toward the whole idea of high-brow literature.

Luckily, my perspective changed, which ultimately led to my becoming an English major in college as well as deepening my passion to be a writer myself. (Okay, some might argue the use of “luckily” in reference to a degree/career aspiration that has yet to bring in any money, but whatever; I like who I am.)  This change came about thanks to a number of enthusiastic English teachers and a handful of books that captured my interest in spite of the mortal sin of being considered highbrow. 😉 And the first one that sticks in my memory is A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens.

I was already familiar with A Christmas Carol, as it’s fairly impossible to get through a Christmas season without encountering some version of it. It was also one of the readings in seventh grade English that I unabashedly enjoyed. It’s arguably the least intimidating Dickens work; accessible, a blessedly short novella. A Tale of Two Cities was long, with scores of characters and meandering plotlines, and had no ghosts or fantastical journeys to the past and future. But I remember when we were assigned to read it, for some reason I made a conscious decision that I was going to enjoy this book, darn it! That deliberate positive attitude carried me forward quite a ways, but it still wouldn’t have been enough if the book had been a total slog. It wasn’t. By the end, as I sniffled over Sydney Carton’s ultimate sacrifice, I had come to genuinely love the book.

It was definitely the right Dickens novel to start with. Later I read Great Expectations and David Copperfield; entertaining but much more like fictionalized autobiographies, coming-of-age tales without a ton of plot. A Tale of Two Cities is thick with plot, filled with delicious depictions of bloodthirsty revolutionaries, tragic heroes and memorable villains. The prose wasn’t always easy to get through, but I persisted because I really wanted to know what happened next. I recognized that something old and revered could still be fun. And as I learned more about Dickens, I was amused to learn he had written in serial format, often paid by the word. Maybe, given enough time, someone who wrote pulp novels or comic books could be held in just as high regard as Dickens. Maybe Dickens would find it hilarious that his work was being studied as great art in the hallowed halls of academia. Basically, I was starting to see that the line between art that entertains the common masses and highbrow, serious art was totally arbitrary. It was very freeing.

For a while I read Dickens voraciously; Great Expectations and David Copperfield as I mentioned, as well as Oliver Twist and Hard Times and several re-reads of A Tale of Two Cities. I still have a tradition of reading A Christmas Carol every year on the day before Christmas. I confess I haven’t picked up many new-to-me Dickens novels recently. I read Nicholas Nickleby last year and was a bit dismayed to discover my Dickens reading skills had gone quite dull – it took me months to get through it, where I used to tear through a novel in just a few weeks. But I still enjoyed it well enough. I think more than getting me to appreciate Dickens in particular, what A Tale of Two Cities opened for me was the possibility of picking up classic novels voluntarily, outside of any school assignment, and reading them for sheer pleasure. Sure, I mostly read newer books, particularly speculative fiction, but sometimes just for the heck of it I’ll scan the library shelves for a classic I haven’t read yet and take a look at why it’s considered a classic. I don’t always agree with the literary establishment, but it’s worth considering. And then sometimes I write page after page dissecting it. I’ve come a long way since seventh grade.


2 thoughts on “A Tale of Two Writers

  1. For me, the “Hey, this is really good stuff!” book was “Ethan Frome”. Not exactly the most upbeat story in the world but it was so real, so spare and told so well that I felt like I was actually freezing my nose off in Starkfield as I was reading it. I do remember being interested in Harrison Bergeron et al but the whole solemn Life Is A Meaningless Void thing didn’t strike me quite as much as it did some others. (For some reason, they also gave us lots of Poe in seventh and eighth grade, which we all took to pretty readily — depressing, yes, but very dramatic at the same time, and there’s nothing a young teen likes better than DRAMA!) I can see why they assign those books, though — even if teenagers don’t understand them very well at the time, at least the seed will have been planted, so to speak — twenty years later, they may have experienced or seen something which will make them remember a bit in “The Great Gatsby”, realize it wasn’t totally useless, and start looking it up again. Or perhaps not, but at least they know that these authors and books exist. Sorry, I’m not putting it very coherently, but the idea of a set of books which everyone has had to read and can draw from, no matter who they might be or what they’ve ended up doing with their lives, is one that I think is very important.

    I liked your post about Lloyd Alexander — I only read the Prydain books once, when I was an adult, and while I liked them I clearly need to give them (and his other books) a closer look :).

    • Yes, I think there is definitely value in introducing some of the heavier stuff to young readers, as long as it’s balanced out with material that’s more naturally engaging. Even as I raged against the depressing world of Harrison Begeron, I found I couldn’t stop thinking about it, and eventually came to realize that perhaps some stories are meant to be enraging. I keep intending to re-read Fahrenheit 451 because I think I’d probably love it now. Also I’d be more informed in arguing against the assumption that it’s merely an anti-censorship screed, because I’m pretty sure that’s not what Bradbury intended, nor what the book really explores. (All my 12-year-old self knew was that it about a man who didn’t feel anything when his wife tried to kill herself, and I hated him.)

      I am always in favor of reading more Lloyd Alexander! What’s exciting me right now is that my own daughter is old enough to read his books, so I’ve been eagerly recommending one after the other whenever she’s looking for something to read.

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