Hating The Classics

It’s been a while since I posted, so I decided to let my Twitter feed give me an idea this morning. Here’s the inpiring tweet:

A Five Book Birthday Salute to D.H. Lawrence | Book Patrol http://t.co/h2vpFGzSH3 – Tweeted by @PublishersWkly, September 12, 2014



I don’t remember now why I picked up The Scarlet Letter. It was my brother who was reading it for school – required, for the class he was in. Everyone I heard speak of the book despised it, and it’s possible that was my motivation. At that time in my life, I set myself opposite my brother in every way I could: music we listened to, books we read, subjects we excelled at in high school. English was my subject, not his. When he grumbled about The Scarlet Letter, I was intrigued.

I also noticed it was short, and I figured it wouldn’t be a big time investment.

Those of you who have read the book know how foolish that is. The Scarlet Letter may be short – it’s about 83,000 words, a little shorter than the second Harry Potter book – but it’s dense. The language is old-fashioned. It’s rich and descriptive and slow-moving, and nearly impossible to skim. All of the typical strategies of the slacker high school student were thwarted by this book. Unless you could get away with the Cliff’s Notes, you were going to be stuck for a while.

I loved it.

I loved the story – the tragic romance, the strange child, the woman who, despite public shame and villification, got up every day and did a job and raised her daughter. I loved that her husband was awful and that her lover was weak and flawed. I loved that, despite her public punishment, in the end she was not the one that suffered the worst. Hester Prynne was quiet and solid and strong, the eye of the storm around her. She survived, and thrived, and her strange child did as well.

It’s quite a radical story if you think about it, especially given when it was written. When I was finally taught about the book – in college, for me; my high school English teacher didn’t require it – we were told that Hawthorne felt considerable guilt for the part his own ancestors played in the deplorable Salem witch trials. Maybe that was the germ of the story for him: that the one who was exposed and punished for her sin (and let’s not rewrite history here; adultery was considered a pretty big deal, especially when it resulted in a child that could not somehow be passed off as legitimate) was eventually forgiven, and those who did not confess ended up destroyed.

But at the same time, she wasn’t apologetic, was she? She was married to a much older man who was never there. She fell in love with someone else. Her lover committed the same crime that she did, and yet he said nothing, let her suffer, because he did not want to give up his position in the community. She had to stand before her neighbors only because her child was physical proof of what she had done. She stood, and let them judge her as they wished, and refused to identify her partner in crime. And she lived her life quietly – and kindly – for so long that eventually her crime was lost to the community’s memory entirely.

It’s a strange message, really: that it is not repentance that is required, it is atonement.

I’m not sure I’ve ever spoken to anyone else who loved this book. It’s one of a number of novels in the “had to read it for school” category: Moby Dick, The Old Man and the Sea, Animal Farm. Despite studying English through college, I’ve never completely understood why some books survive as “classics” and others do not – there are no new stories under the sun. The differences come in the telling, and I have to believe people fall in love with language.

I disliked The Old Man and the Sea – which, at 27,000 words, should have been a much faster read than The Scarlet Letter. I found it interminable and dull. Someone suggested to me once that Hemingway was a “man’s” writer, and that his work was often about struggles with traditional masculinity. This may be true, and it may be that the themes simply didn’t resonate with me; but when I remember reading Hemingway, I remember the vast amounts of white space on the page, and almost none of the words.

Moby Dick was interesting, once I learned to skip the chapters on whaling. Animal Farm was not bad, but in my opinion far inferior to the deeply upsetting 1984. Charles Dickens wrote a good soap opera, no matter which book you’re talking about; but my, the man could go on. Middlemarch was a good book, but I much preferred Silas Marner,  in no small part due to the happy ending.

I read Faulkner (largely impenetrable) and Flannery O’Connor (thought-provoking and upsetting). I read The Great Gatsby, and still wonder what people see in that story. I read a handful of 18th-century epistolary novels – Pamela, Clarissa, Dangerous Liaisons – which were surprisingly entertaining soap opera. I read The Sorrows of Young Werther, and I found the hero intensely annoying and self-absorbed. I read Somerset Maugham, originally at my grandfather’s suggestion, and found the prose gorgeous and the stories too sad.

I’ve observed before that there are no universally-loved books. For an aspiring author, this is worth remembering. It’s impossible for me to read anything now without thinking of the author, bending over typewriter or paper or computer, trying to bridge the gap between the story in her head and the language that she must use to relate it. It’s difficult for me to criticize someone like Goethe – even though he’s been dead nearly 200 years – because I imagine he must have loved his irritating, melodramatic hero. He must have worried over every word, determined to give his characters the best world he could give them. He must have cared for this story he built, because otherwise there is no reason to go through the agony of getting the words down on paper.

It’s possible I’m projecting.