It’s not a New Year’s resolution, but at the start of each new year, I set out to read a classic novel. Usually, my methodology of choosing which classic to read is to take out the list of the 100 Best Novels that was published by The Modern Library, review my ongoing checkmarks of which books I have and haven’t read, and find something interesting.
The book of classic literature that I chose this year has been in my life, staring at me, for over 35 years. When I was a child, my mother, who came from a rural farming community with limited access to schools, chose to finish her high school education and signed up for a correspondence course where she was sent materials each week, completed them and sent them back. It was the 1970s equivalent of an online education. I had a lot of fascination with the process. By that time, I had started school, and there was no doubt I would be going straight through until I graduated. I wondered what her life growing up had been like and tried to compare it to what little I knew of my own life.
The materials that arrived in the mail were equally fascinating. There were workbooks, textbooks, and my favorite of all—the occasional novel. This is where A Tale of Two Cities entered my life, and this is why it has been staring at me all these years from the family bookshelf.
That book, with a cover filled with images of powdered wigs and French bonnets rouge, survived several rounds and three decades of my parents’ downsizing attempts, as well as a family house fire, and it ended up in the basement of the house where I was taking a nap last summer and lazily looked at it, wondering why I’d never picked it up to read it.
It’s hard to read. When I was growing up, and I was reading a book I had trouble understanding, I would read it out loud, sitting on a bar stool, to my mother as she washed dishes. It helped me to retain and understand the words on the page. Today, I sat in a chair, by myself, reading A Tale of Two Cities aloud in an attempt to understand Dickens’ complicated explanations. I also sometimes mouth the words as I sit on the couch in the evening, even as the kids are around me watching television or playing with electronics. My two best readers ignore me, and my little reader who struggles a bit more, watches me and says, “Hey, that’s what I do, too, when I don’t understand what I’m reading. I didn’t know you are allowed to talk out loud when you read a book when you’re an adult!”
A Tale of Two Cities isn’t my favorite book I’ve ever read, but like most classics, I will be glad I have read it. I’m not the first member of the family to tackle this classic.