January 31, 2017
During my high school days, we had an English teacher who spent every afternoon reading to us for fifty minutes. The book was A Tale of Two Cities. I don't think he managed to finish it. Not sure because I suffered an early turn-off. I can remember sitting at my desk making up sentences and trying to estimate how many letters there were in the sentence before doing a count. I got good at it in time, acquiring one of several skills that provided no advantage whatever beyond the school.
I probably would have kept my distance from Dickens after that experience, except that my folks got me a record of "A Christmas Carol," and I loved it. So eventually, after I'd had time to calm down, I tried The Pickwick Papers. It was magnificent, and I never lost the passion for him. I have a complete set of his work in my library, and I've loved the ones I've read, Our Mutual Friend, David Copperfield, Bleak House, and others. But I stayed clear of Two Cities. Now, after all these years, I'm getting ready to go back to high school. I remember two of the great lines from the book, though I doubt that's from having them read to me: "It was the best of times, it was the worst of times," and "It is a far, far better thing that I do, than I have ever done…." Etc. That is the closing line, and I can still remember our teacher going on about what a great piece of writing it is.
He was right on that score, and I guess that means we did get through the entire novel. But the price was high.
Fortunately, I've lived long enough to go back to it. And live through it, as I have through the others. And that, of course, is what we do with fiction. It's not just Mr. Dickens telling us a story. We're in it, wandering through London streets with Oliver Twist and the Artful Dodger. We are with them. It's why we care so much. When Ebenezer and the Spirit of Christmas Present stand outside Bob Cratchett's house and watch Tiny Tim and his family, they aren't really alone. The reader is there as well.
A few other books that have held my interest recently include Michio Kaku's Physics of the Future, Charles Pierce's Idiot America, and Michael Leja's Looking Askance. The latter book is art history, and it blew my socks off. I was shocked to discover, among other things, that those lovely, pastoral landscapes that impressed me with the soft beauty of nature often went in a completely different direction. He provides a skeptical perspective that I had never noticed.
I should mention that Michael was one of my students at Mt. St. Charles Academy in Rhode Island more years ago than I want to remember. I do this either to admit that I may not be completely subjective, or to try to grab some of the credit for his work. He has a Ph.D. from Harvard and is currently chair of the art history graduate group at the University of Pennsylvania. Looking Askance won the Modernist Studies Association Book Prize in 2005.