Monday, September 7, 2009

The Scarlet Letter & Dream by the Fire

"I have often wondered...why high school kids almost invariably hate the books they are assigned to read by their English teachers." 
-Stephen King
If the picture above isn't instantly recognizable to you, you obviously didn't read The Scarlet Letter in high school. I remember cracking that book open, spending hours trying to read it, wishing that I could be watching The Real World instead. 

When we talked about it in class, nothing jumped out at me. Nothing about it seemed extraordinary. To me, it was a long, overly verbose book that a teacher made me read to make me suffer and to learn to do what I was told, no matter how painful.

Years and a college degree later, I heard a segment on NPR. It was a part of their incredible "In Character" series, which explores the most influential and memorable characters in American fiction. Some of these were Harriet the Spy, Cookie Monster, Darth Vader, and Hester Prynne. 

Now, some of you might be thinking "WHY would they talk about cookie monster?" 

I hate to admit, MY honest reaction was "WHY would they talk about boring ole Hester Prynne?"

And then, they read a selection from the book:

...she took off the formal cap that confined her hair; and down it fell upon her shoulders, dark and rich, with at once a shadow and a light in its abundance and imparting the charm of softness to her features.

Not too shabby, huh? Actually, to be specific, in the NPR segment they had John Updike read this selection, which he recited from memory, and which, he said, still makes him cry.

"Well, maybe I should try reading that sucker again," I thought to myself. Then, I saw that The Scarlet Letter was going to be released with a new cover:


You can't tell in this photo, but the "A" actually GLEAMS in the light.

I decided that it was time to give Hester and Mr. Hawthorne another chance. I gave away my old high school copy in favor of the new gleamy version, deciding that it was vital to see it with completely new eyes.

I was surprised by how instantly I fell in love with it. Actually, it was this specific moment in the first chapter that made me fall in love with it. Hawthorne describes the prison, saying:

The rust on the ponderous ironwork of its oaken door looked more antique than any thing else in the new world.  Like all that pertains to crime, it seemed never to have known a youthful era... But, on the one side of the portal, and rooted almost at the threshold, was a wild rose-bush, covered, in this month of June, with its delicate gems, which might be imagined to offer their fragrance and fragile beauty to the prisoner as he went in, and to the condemned criminal as he came forth to his doom, in token that the deep heart of Nature could pity and be kind to him.

Holy crap. Our high school teachers were right!

This isn't the first time I've re-read a book that I hated in high school. When I read To Kill A Mockingbird in school, it went through and over my head. This year I read it again, laughing and sobbing my way through it. Now, it's one of my favorite books, and I think of Scout as one of my best fictional friends.

But, let's not forget that when I read it in school, I hated it. And I'd venture to say that most of us did. Something doesn't seem right about this picture. Am I alone on this one? Teachers were literally showering us with beautiful language and amazingly human stories. In one ear, out the other, to the back of our dusty closets. 

Why do we hate the books that we were forced to read in high school? Maybe the keyword there is "forced." Is it because we were told to read them, and being a teenager means hating being made to do anything? Is it because we weren't mentally or emotionally developed enough to appreciate them? Is it because our teachers didn't take the time to help us understand WHY these books are important?

Most (NOT ALL) of my experiences with reading in high school were like this:

Teacher: Read this.
Student: Why? 
Teacher: Because it's important. 
Student: Why is it important? 
Teacher: Because I said so. 
Student: Is it good? Will I enjoy it? 
Teacher: That's not the point. The point is it's a classic and that means you need to read it so that you can get into a good college.

This, of course, is probably not even close to what actually happened. But for some strange reason, when you're in high school, that's the way it feels - like someone is trying to force you to appreciate something antiquated that has nothing whatsoever to do with who you are. 

You lose the wonder that reading gave you as a child and all of a sudden reading is a chore.

How is it possible that all of this amazing literature was before our very eyes, and we were completely blind to its beauty? 

Maybe you can't be forced to appreciate art. Art's beauty lies in its ability to entice you, to draw you in, to make you look twice and ask questions. Art speaks to you in its own time, when you're ready to listen to it. But Art loses it's power when it is shoved under your nose. The whisper of a painting or a novel is much louder than the shout of the lesson plan or the report card. 

Also, in high school you might feel sorry for a character like Hester Prynne, but you lack the hindsight - the memories, the scars, the good and bad choices you've made - to be able to meet Hester and ache  WITH her. 

As a child, I looked at Hester and thought "The moral of this story is that we shouldn't judge anyone. The End. Give me my test score."

As an adult, I look into Hester's eyes and realize that we are the same.  She isn't a character - she is my friend, my sister, my neighbor.

Hester is me. Hester is you. Hester is all of us.

Take a moment to consider all of those classics you skimmed through at the last minute, the night before the test - Great Expectations, Moby Dick, Oliver Twist, Huckleberry Finn, Wuthering Heights - a whole treasure trove of books screaming, "Please, give me another chance! I promise that I have something valuable to say! We can relate to each other!" 

Without the test looming after you reach the last page, these books have a new, alluring, shiny glow. Dig them out of the closet, approach them with newer, wiser eyes, and learn why your English teacher gave them to you in the first place.

...and then, give your English teacher the opportunity to say, "I told you so!"

Hey! Look at this!


  1. The scarlet letter was actually one of the few books i really did enjoy in high school.

    PS - Have you read - "How to Read Literature like a Professor"? My little sister had to do it for summer reading her Senior year in highschool - SO awesome! I wish id read this in highschool, because i'd probably have enjoyed english class alot more!

  2. Why don't I remember the language being that beautiful? Oh, right. Probably because I was so focused on getting through it quickly so I wouldn't get in trouble in class.

  3. I am a high school student and we just finished THE SCARLETT LETTER and I loved it. I am re-reading it already. It is one of the best pieces of literature I have read in an english class.

  4. I am a high school student and we just finished THE SCARLET LETTTER and I loved it. I am re-reading it already. I think it is one of the best pieces of literature I have read in an english class.


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