Most people are exposed to the classics at the worst time of their lives.
When they are teenagers.
Young people typically have no patience or interest in the best works in literature and regard them, alas, as a slog to get through to graduation.
Part of the blame has to fall on school systems, which present these works about as appealing as the municipal tax code.
Many young people, when they leave school, never look back, never pick up any of these books – or any book, unfortunately.
According to a recent Pew Research Center survey, a quarter of all adults haven’t read a single book in the last year.
They don’t know what they’re missing.
I recently re-read Charles Dickens’ “A Tale of Two Cities.”
I am a huge Dickens fan, and this is my favorite among his works. But it’s been at least 15 years since I cracked it open.
When you dive into a book at a different time in your own life, your life experience helps you relate to different aspects. The book may be eternal, but you, the ever-changing reader, find a different flavor. You make connections you previously didn’t notice.
Dickens serialized this book in 1859, and again I marvel at Dickens’ talent for plotting, his ability to weave multiple stories for the most surprising payoffs.
In retelling the French Revolution from the perspective of one victimized family, Dickens condemns both the French aristocracy for their generations of abuses as well as the peasant uprising that led to thousands losing their heads.
Yes, some of the characters – especially the good ones, such as Lucie Manette – are stiff as timber.
This time around, I can appreciate more the dissolute rogue Sydney Carton and his journey to redemption. Dr. Manette’s escape to freedom – “recalled to life” – is more thrilling.
Madame DeFarge, perhaps Dickens’ greatest villain, always clicking her knitting needles, condemning people to death, even has a reason for her lust for blood. Dickens doesn’t glorify her suffering as justification, but he shows why she became an all-too-believable monster.
Try it for yourself. Go back and check out one of those books some stodgy teacher forced on you. You might just enjoy yourself.
Dickens’ “A Tale of Two Cities” is a public domain work. The digital version for the novel is free on Amazon.
2 thoughts on “‘Recalled to Life’: A Case for Re-reading the Classics”
Yes, and this is how I feel about Shakespeare. You need some life experience to grasp his astonishing insight into human motivation. I read Shakespeare in college during the Watergate hearings. The parallel between Nixon and Macbeth was startling: “To be thus is nothing, but to be safely thus….”
Brilliant comparison, Brian. It wasn’t until I was long out of college that I truly grasped the truth and the power of “King Lear.”