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Books about the Best of Times, Books about the Worst of Times

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In A Tale of Two Cities, Charles Dickens penned one of the most famous first sentences in all of literature… but it’s longer than you might realize:

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.

That epic beginning was originally published on April 30, 1859. In honor of its anniversary — and the novel as a whole — we asked our book experts here at the New York Public Library to pick a side:

What are some of your favorite books that feature a character having the best of times OR the worst of times? 

Here are their either/or answers.

Best of Times

The best of times can mean different things for different animals. In A Perfect Day by Lane Smith, all the animals of the forest describe what activities and atmospheres make them the happiest. —Alessandra Affinito, Chatham Square

There is no greater day of the week than Friday for the young narrator of Dan Yaccarino’s beautiful picture book, Every Friday. On Fridays, he and his dad get up early and, before going to school and work, take a leisurely walk together to the local diner, where they talk and laugh and enjoy their Friday morning pancake breakfast. Jeff Katz, Chatham Square

In My Life in France, Julia Child’s love letter to France, French cuisine, and her husband Paul, her delight in her Parisian life in and her enthusiasm for the art of French cooking are captured so vividly that readers will want to move to Paris or at least enjoy a fantastic meal. (Written with her nephew Alex Prud’homme.) But Julia Child only tells of the best of times in her delightful memoir. Bob Spitz’s exhaustive 2012 biography Dearie: The Remarkable Life of Julia Child covers the best and the worst throughout the whole of Child’s long and fascinating life. —Elizabeth Waters, Mid-Manhattan

Jim the Boy is definitely “the best of times.” The novel is really just about the day-to-day life of a boy in a happy family and relatively peaceful town in the 1930’s. He wins a dollar at a carnival, sees electric lights for the first time, and learns how to catch a baseball. There’s a sequel, The Blue Star, about how the town reacts to the start of World War II, which is more along the lines of “the worst of times.” —Benjamin Sapadin, Morris Park

Worst of Times

In Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad DayJudith Viorst tells the sad story of a regular boy having an exceptionally bad time. Lima beans, gum in your hair, kissing on TV... it doesn’t get much worse than that. —Gwen Glazer, Readers Services

In The Dinner by Herman Koch, Paul is having the worst time in a posh restaurant in Amsterdam with his wife, his politician brother, and his sister-in-law. The tension around the table builds throughout the dinner, while Paul and the conversation become a bit more complex with every course. It is a psychologically compelling read marked by dark commentary on contemporary life. —Jessica Cline, Mid-Manhattan

Can You Keep a Secret? by Sophie Kinsella. With the plane she’s on about to crash, Emma’s bad day just got worse. Feeling the need to wipe her slate clean before she meets St. Peter, Emma confesses her deepest, darkest secrets and fears to the handsome stranger sitting next to her. When the plane doesn’t crash she thinks, it’ll be fine as she’ll never see that guy again — until she does and what’s worse he’s her unseen (until now) boss. —Anne Rouyer, Mulberry Street

I’ve gotta go with Lev Grossman’s Magicians trilogy. Quentin’s journeys through ultimate magicals highs to deepest, darkest chasms is a running theme in this series. The first high is discovering that magic truly exists at Brakebills College. Kinda goes downhill from there, and these books never end well. —Joshua Soule, Spuyten Duyvil

In Longbourn by Jo Baker, laundry day would certainly qualify as the worst of times for the maids, Sarah and Polly. Getting the mud out of Miss Lizzie’s petticoats when she indulges in a cross-country romp is no easy task, and she is only one of seven in the family to wash for. Set in the home of the Bennets of Pride and Prejudice, Lonbgourn imagines the extremely hard-working and potentially precarious lives of the servants unseen in Austen’s novel to great effect. —Elizabeth Waters, Mid-Manhattan

In A Line Made by Walking, 25-going-on-26-year-old Frankie is severely, clinically depressed. She leaves art school and Dublin for the isolation of her deceased grandmother’s cottage where she hopes to reinvigorate her photography and interest in the world around her. What follows is a beautiful and poignant exploration of mental health, art, and the concept of living. —Alexandria Abenshon, Webster

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Have trouble reading standard print? Many of these titles are available in formats for patrons with print disabilities.

Staff picks are chosen by NYPL staff members and are not intended to be comprehensive lists. We'd love to hear your ideas too, so leave a comment and tell us what you’d recommend. And check out our Staff Picks browse tool for more recommendations!

 

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