Friday, March 25, 2011

A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens

372 pages
Published in 2004 by
Barnes & Noble Books
New York, NY
(Originally published in 1859
by Chapham & Hall, London, England)

"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." (Book 1, Chapter 1, pg 7.)
For years I have wanted to read A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens, but just never made the time. And then, at the end of last year I determined I would not put it off another year, I would have the book read before the end of 2011! I asked the ladies in my book club if we could add it to our list of upcoming books to read, to which they readily agreed. This done, I started the book at Christmas with hope of having it read well before the scheduled time to discuss. Unfortunately my first attempt didn't turn out too well... I was sick over the holidays, under a lot of stress at work, and as a result completely unable to grasp what I was reading. So I set the book aside and waited a few weeks. At long last I picked it up again with new determination. And this time I succeeded!

The Plot:
A Tale of Two Cities is a historical romance written by one of English literature's best authors. The story is split between London and Paris during some of history's most explosive years -- the years leading up to and during the French Revolution and the "reign of terror." It is not only a tale of two cities, but it is a tale of two life choices -- the choice between good and evil, between compassion and tyranny, between selfless love and selfish hate. It is a powerful story of life.

My Thoughts:
A Tale of Two Cities is really told in the form of three sub-books. Book One: Recalled To Life sets the foundation of the story and as such does begin a little slow, but there are details here that become important to the reader much later in the book. While reading this part I found myself bogged down and felt clueless as to what was going on in the book. So, rather than give up I turned to Cliff Notes whenever I didn't understand a chapter or a scene, which greatly helped me get my reader's "feet" under me. So that by Book Two: The Golden Thread I was confident in what I was reading. It is at this point in the book that the story picks up the pace and the reader begins to see where the overall story is headed. This is also the portion of the book where Dickens focuses heavily on both the historical detail and the character development. Again, important details are tucked into the story that prove valuable in Book Three: The Track of a Storm. From this point on I could hardly put the book down, this is the climax of the story when all the details start to come together like pieces to a puzzle and at the very end the reader is left with the picture of the supreme sacrifice of selfless love and a powerful lesson for life.

A Tale of Two Cities is probably one of the best pieces of literature I have ever read. Yes, it's true and I am not alone. There were a dozen ladies at our book club discussion ranging in age, personality, and background, but every single one of the ladies read and loved A Tale of Two Cities. Yes, it is can be a difficult read, especially if you are unaccustomed to Dickens or 19th century literature, but it is a worthy read and one that every person should read.

I confess, if it wasn't for the ladies in my book club I do not know if I would have ever given Dickens a real chance. As a teenager I found him boring and too wordy for my liking. It was not until the book club read Great Expectations a few years back that I changed my mind. I joke now that I had no great expectations for Dickens, but that thanks to the ladies' encouragement I was able to finish the book and was thrilled to discover how wrong I had been. Since then I have gone on to read and enjoy Bleak House, Little Dorrit, and now A Tale of Two Cities.

So that brings me to you. If you have never read A Tale of Two Cities I exhort you to add it to your reading list for this year (or next). If you are like I was and have given Dickens a chance, but gave up, then I encourage you to give him another try. His writing is rich and will make you a better reader for the time you invest.

Here are some suggestions I have found helpful that might work for you:

1. Track down a copy of Cliff Notes or Spark Notes for the book you wish to read. No, this is NOT cheating, so long as you use it to aid with your reading of the actual book. While paperback copies of Cliff Notes are available in book stores, I find the free online versions to the best for my reading. The chapter summaries alone have helped me work through and appreciate some of the more difficult chapters in classic literature like A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens or The Brothers Karamazov by Fyodor Dostoevsky.

2. Watch a good film adaptation. I'm not normally a fan of watching a movie before reading the book, but in some cases I think it's very valuable. I watched the 2005 Masterpiece Theater adaptation of Bleak House before I tackled the book and found it very helpful as I was then able to keep the plot threads, characters, and dialogue clear in my mind. I've yet to see any adaptation of A Tale of Two Cities, but I have been told the 1935 version with Ronald Colman is excellent and true to the book and that the 1980 version with Chris Sarandon is likewise good.

3. Listen to an audio version. I've been told that one of the best ways to read a difficult book is to have it read to you. Instead of stumbling over difficult words or being distracted by foot or end notes the listener can sit back and let their imagination go as they listen to the story unfold. While Cliff Notes or Spark Notes are probably better for the visually minded, the audio version is generally better for those who learn best through audio. I am a visual person so I often find myself distracted while listening to audio books, but for those who are more audio-minded an audio book can take you places you would never go if you had to read on your own.

4. Find a group that is interested in reading the same book as you, purpose to read it (alone or together) and then plan to discuss what you liked or didn't like and what you learned.

5. Last but not least, have patience. Reading classic literature often takes time. It's rare for readers to be able to rush through reading a classic as might be done with a piece of modern fiction. I liken reading classics to eating a steak vs. modern fiction, which is like a bowl of soup. Eating a steak requires time. You have to cut small pieces, chew them and then swallow, while soup requires only scooping a spoonful and swallowing it. When reading a classic, don't put unneeded pressure on yourself; pace your reading. And don't feel bad if it takes you a lot longer to finish than other books you read.

Reading is really like anything in life. There is a learning curve. It takes time, practice and determination, but if you desire you can learn to read any book you pick up and often you will find that you surprise yourself with what you end up enjoying.

Good luck and happy reading!

Related Links:

Kindle: A Tale of Two Cities ($0.00)

Project Gutenberg: A Tale of Two Cities (ebook)

Lit2Go: A Tale of Two Cities (audio book with lessons)

Librivox: A Tale of Two cities (audio book)

Cliff Notes: A Tale of Two Cities

Spark Notes: A Tale of Two Cities

Book Reviews: Books by Charles Dickens

Charles Dickens Literature


Carrie said...

As you know - I rather needed the encouragement. =D I read book one and I THINK I followed it, but it isn't exactly clear cut. I do think that in order to ever make it through this work of Dickens, I'm going to HAVE to find a movie adaptation first. Otherwise? I just find him bland, dry and boring! He's hard work! Which is not a bad thing. It just means, as you say, setting aside the time and exercising a great deal of patience!

Sarah M. said...

Carrie, I think you will really be glad if you ever finish A Tale of Two Cities. The ending is so powerful. Especially knowing your worldview I think you'll be like "Wow!" :)

Anonymous said...

I'm here from a link Carrie put on Facebook. It took me several tries to get through A Tale of Two Cities a few years ago, and when I finally did, I loved it and immediately reread it. It became one of my all-time favorite books. I am planning to read it again this year. I hope Carrie does finish it some time -- I know she'd love the ending.

Carrie said...

Ok, ok, people.....

Kate {The Parchment Girl} said...

I love A Tale of Two Cities. Dickens is my #1 favorite classics author, though I admit I still haven't read as much of his work as I would like to. The Cricket on the Hearth, though one of his short stories, is my favorite that I've read by him so far.

Samantha said...

A Tale of Two Cities has long been on my TBR list. After reading your review, I think I might have to bump it up a bit.

I've read A Christmas Carol and loved it. If his other work is in amy way similarly written, I'm sure I'll love it as well.

seth said...

It definitely starts slow, but like you I couldn't put it down after about the two-thirds mark. One of my all-time favorites!

Marie said...

These are great tips for approaching difficult books. I love the audio suggestion- I never would have thought of that. I always forget about audiobooks!

Amateur Reader said...

I just spent the last week writing about A Tale of Two Cities.

Patience is recommended with all great writing - with all great art. Is rushing through a contemporary novel a good thing?

Carol in Oregon said...

I'm very fond of Dickens. I appreciated your tips for reading him. His books are so complicated that I had a weird experience a few years ago.

I read Hard Times with a vague suspicion that I'd seen the movie some years back. It wasn't until I got to the last chapter that I realized that I had read the book before! Astounding!

May I be bold and suggest that if you haven't had a taste of Trollope that you try him? He is a contemporary of Dickens and Thackeray. Thackeray writes with a higher style; Dickens with a lower; and Trollope is right in the middle. The best place to start with Trollope is The Warden.

Sarah M. said...

Yes, I've read Trollope and enjoyed it. The Warden is on my TBR list for later this year. Also I've wanted to read Thackery for some time, maybe next year.