Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Aimless Reading: The D's, Part 26 (Charles Dickens)

Dickens, Charles
A Tale of Two Cities

I hate Charles Dickens, I love Charles Dickens...

Not sure where I got this, but I have a gut feeling it might be part of the small stash of high school text books I stole from my brother way back when. I can't read Charles Dickens. I have never been able to read Charles Dickens. I have tried to read him several times, but I find him so tedious that I can barely make it through a book. The only book of his I ever finished was Hard Times, which I read for a summer course in college. I have never read A Tale of Two Cities.

On the other hand, I owe the fact that I became a reader indirectly to my hatred for Charles Dickens. As I think I mentioned a while back, I went to public schools up until the eighth grade, at which point I was sent to an all boys Jesuit high school. I really, really wanted to stay with my friends in the public schools, and was very unhappy about the fact that I was going to have to drive an hour in to DC every morning to go to school with a bunch of guys.

Worse still, we were required to read through a list of summer books. I was not much of a reader, truth be told. I had read a lot of young adult books, but almost always under the compulsion of parents or teachers. I rarely read on my own and almost never for fun.

One of the books on the summer list, and the first that I tried to read, was David Copperfield. Can you imagine forcing an eighth grader to read David Copperfield?

My experience with it was, I think, fairly typical of teenagers forced to read something totally outside their ken. The characters didn't sound like me at all and the world they inhabited did not look like the one in which I lived. Thus, I did not see how any of this had to do with anything else or why I should spend my summer indoors reading a boring, out-of-date tome, when I could be out in the woods with my friends doing bong hits, smoking cigarettes and drinking vodka stolen out of somebody's mother's liquor cabinet.

Anyhow, I read about 75 pages of the book and hated it so much that I vowed never to read a book again. I subsequently received D's in English all the way through the eleventh grade. It's hard to pass English courses without reading.

In tenth or eleventh grade, I had an epiphany of sorts. We were assigned The Catcher in the Rye for class. Upon opening the book, I finally discovered a voice that sounded like my own, who inhabited a world that looked a lot more like the world I lived in than David Copperfield did. I discovered a character who, like me, was a complete alien in the prep school world. The epiphany occurred about two thirds of the way through the first sentence of the book:

If you really want to hear about it, the first thing you'll probably want to know is where I was born, and what my lousy childhood was like, and how my parents were occupied and all before they had me, and all that David Copperfield kind of crap, but I don't feel like going into it, if you want to know the truth.

And thus a reader was born.

from A Tale of Two Cities

IT WAS the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way- in short, the period was so far like the present period, that some of its noisiest authorities insisted on its being received, for good or for evil, in the superlative degree of comparison only.

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