Every time I am at an airport, somehow in between body scanners and three-ounce bottles of shampoo, I find myself in the nearest bookstore with an uncanny urge to buy a book, in spite of any insurmountable class reading currently on my agenda. The bestseller display initially catches my eye with snappy embossed titles, but inevitably, the section marked “Classics” captures my full attention with the promise of literary betterment. I ogle the saccharine covers featuring impressionist paintings or somber portraiture, pick one and purchase.

After reading, I usually put the book down and think soberly to myself, “Well, that sucked.” But on the off occasion, I love it.  So, I’m here to field the classics for you and do all that tedious reading. The next time you are in a bookstore conundrum, you will know which classics to pass and which to prize.

Who is more of an iconic classic novelist than dear Charles Dickens? Sadly, frantic late-night readings of his works during my angst-ridden and formative adolescent years have lead me to classify him as one of the most overrated authors in English literature. His stories are full of beat-you-over-the-head messages and predictable plotlines, yet, even I must admit it’s a far, far better thing to have read Dickens than to have avoided him.

If you are in the predicament of not having read a Dickens novel, and you have a choice ahead of you, I recommend either A Tale of Two Cities or Great Expectations.  If you choose the former you can appreciate those musical numbers in the classic Martin Short film A Simple Wish as well as that episode of “Hey Arnold!” in which Oskar memorizes the first page of the book to disprove claims of his illiteracy. Obviously, yours truly has watched too much Nickelodeon.

Regardless, A Tale of Two Cities, with its cultural fame and stock of quotable phrases, remains a solid bet. As far as readability goes, Dickens tends to be quite straightforward, to the point that he gives his characters simplistic, eye-roll inducing names. Need an example? In Hard Times, he names fun-sucking grammar school teacher Mr. M’Choakumchild. Dickens, please!

Dickens’ works also tend to be lengthy, as they were usually written in installments for periodicals. The longer his stories, the greater profit he made off them. He’s no Scrooge, but everyone needs to make a living.

A Tale of Two Cities has a universal theme of redemption, which is always relevant, but its terminally flat characters detract from the timeless message. Dickens often sacrifices character development for symbolic description. Take the heroine of the story, Lucie, for example. She functions as a symbol of pure goodness and ends up being more of a moral Barbie doll than a real woman: Her only thematic purpose is to drive protagonist Sydney Carton.

While Great Expectations suffers from the same general issues as A Tale of Two Cities, it has more of a sweeping and nonsensical vibe. The story features a crazy old woman who refuses to change out of her wedding dress and an inexplicable passion between two ill-suited characters. It’s written for those who are looking for something unexpected, while A Tale of Two Cities is much more practical. The latter is a practical tale whose actions play out logically and realistically — more staid perhaps, but also more true to life.

Both are classics. My personal pick is Great Expectations, but A Tale of Two Cities wins in cultural relevance. Choose your Dickens wisely and maybe you’ll only have to read one. Just make sure to avoid Bleak House.

Like I said earlier, Dickens tends to put a lot of stock in his naming, except for Little Dorrit – that one must have been ironic; it could definitely double as a blunt weapon.

 

Elizabeth Garbitelli is a junior in the College and is currently studying abroad in Oxford, England. She can be reached at garbitelli@thehoya.com. Literary Snarknotes appears every other Friday in the guide.

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