A Random Reading List
A Tale of Two Cities, a novel by Charles Dickens
I have read A Tale of Two Cities more time than I can calculate. The first time is almost a throwaway because it isn't until the second reading that the magnificence of the first chapter reveals itself.
“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times....” There are few English speakers who are not familiar with these opening words of the first chapter, but not until a second reading does the reader begin to appreciate the exquisite construction and foreshadowing that packs this chapter. Although the chapter specifically foreshadows the plot of A Tale of Two Cities, in a more general way it could serve as a prologue to life.
In addition to the craftsmanship of this book—written in longhand, mind you, without the aid of word-processor or typewriter, the characters are among the most memorable and well-developed in literature.
Madame DeFarge ever knitting and M. DeFarge's wine flowing in the streets
Rough and unintentionally comic resurrection man Jerry Cruncher, and his “flopping and kneeling” wife.
Sydney Carton, like Prince Hal's sun breaking through the “foul and ugly mists,” utters the most famous, albeit brief, speech of the novel
Innocent Lucy Manette and Dr. Manette. Constantly making shoes and counting to 12...Hush
Jarvis Lorry, poorly concealing his soft heart under his repeated description of himself as a man of business.
Or the memorable description of Monseigneur awaiting his chocolate as his countrymen searched for... cake?
Dickens' character are typically memorable, but to my mind, Tale of Two Cities is his tour de force, and these characters are only a sample.
“The Cask of Amontillado,” a short story by Edgar Allen Poe
Much like “A Tale of Two Cities,” this masterpiece, by a master story-teller, reveals all in the first paragraph, but it is not until the end of the story that that becomes evident. Irony, revenge, diabolical plotting: it is all here. In addition to revealing the plot of the story, the first paragraph provides an honest and illuminating definition of revenge:
The thousand injuries of Fortunato I had borne as I best could, but when he ventured upon insult I vowed revenge. You, who so well know the nature of my soul, will not suppose, however, that I gave utterance to a threat. At length I would be avenged; this was a point definitely, settled --but the very definitiveness with which it was resolved precluded the idea of risk. I must not only punish but punish with impunity. A wrong is unredressed when retribution overtakes its redresser. It is equally unredressed when the avenger fails to make himself felt as such to him who has done the wrong.
While on the subject of Edgar Allen Poe, it seems appropriate to mention
First Five Favs
A Tale of Two Cities, C. Dickens
"The Cask of Amontillado," Edgar Allen Poe
"The Tell-tale Heart," Edgar Allen Poe
"Laura," Hector Hugh Munro (Saki)
"The Open Window," Hector Hugh Munro (Saki)
“The Tell-tale Heart,” a short story by Edgar Allen Poe
True! --nervous --very, very dreadfully nervous I had been and am; but why will you say that I am mad? The disease had sharpened my senses --not destroyed --not dulled them. Above all was the sense of hearing acute. I heard all things in the heaven and in the earth. I heard many things in hell. How, then, am I mad? Hearken! and observe how healthily --how calmly I can tell you the whole story.
It is impossible to say how first the idea entered my brain; but once conceived, it haunted me day and night. Object there was none. Passion there was none. I loved the old man. He had never wronged me. He had never given me insult. For his gold I had no desire. I think it was his eye! yes, it was this! He had the eye of a vulture --a pale blue eye, with a film over it. Whenever it fell upon me, my blood ran cold; and so by degrees --very gradually --I made up my mind to take the life of the old man, and thus rid myself of the eye forever.
Well, if Poe's words haven't captured you already, what more can I say?
“Laura,” a short story by H.H. Munro (Saki)
For pure deliciousness, though, “Laura” is my favorite short story, so perfect that I almost want to cry at its gorgeous texture and symmetry combined with Munro's somewhat twisted sense of humor. I first encountered Saki in a ninth grade literature book, before anthologies pretty much gave only headlines. (See Ray Bradbury's classic Fahrenheit 451 for his dire 1953 warning/prediction.) My first encounter was with his better-known short story, “The Open Window.”
The opening lines of “Laura” suggest the theme and tone:
“You are not really dying, are you?" asked Amanda.
"I have the doctor's permission to live till Tuesday," said Laura.
"But to-day is Saturday; this is serious!" gasped Amanda.
"I don't know about it being serious; it is certainly Saturday," said Laura.
This is a story rich in irony, foreshadowing and wry humor. It is achingly beautiful—and more than a little perverse.
“The Open Window,” a short story by H.H. Munro (Saki)
Unlike “Laura” or “The Cask of Amontillado,” this short story does not reveal all in the first few paragraphs. In fact, it is a deadpan story with the punchline in the final sentence. Unfortunately for modern readers, the meaning of romance seems to be limited to a love story, whereas this story uses it in the more general sense of an elaborate fiction.
I hope that I didn't ruin it, but I have seen adult readers clearly perplexed by the final line.