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Reviews of Books I Was Forced To Read in High School, Part 2: The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne

Categories: This Writer's Life.

Brief Research Sidenote: In my long esteemed career of researching via the Web 2.0, I have come to love and look forward to the random factual tidbits provided for you by Wikipedia. For instance, where else would I have been able to discover that on an episode of “One Tree Hill”, Lucas Scott reads a quote from The Scarlet Letter, or that the hip-hop group The Clipse features the lyric “Like a Scarlet Letter, for the world to see” on their mixtape “We Got It 4 Cheap: Vol. 1″? If you said nowhere, you’re totally right. Eat it, World Book.

I read The Scarlet Letter during my freshman year of high school, which– much like the book– was a time of semi-specific love angst and poor clothing choices. The SL is by Nathaniel Hawthorne, a Bowdoin College Polar Bear, lifelong New Englander, and Concord, MA neighbor of two philosophizing writers with three names (Henry David Thoreau and Ralph Waldo Emerson) whom I often confuse with each other.

For those of you who don’t know, The SL centers around a girl named Hester Prynne living on a 17th century Puritan settlement outside of Boston, who is forced to wear a big red A on her chest because she is an adulterer. The adultery in question is complicated, as her husband sent her ahead from England and allegedly never showed up, and God knows life in one of those Puritan settlements was kind of boring what with the hoeing and the witch hunting and what not, but, needless to say, once she got pregnant, the rumor mill (which was located next to the textile mill) abuzzed, and she got harangued. By the “town fathers”. Seriously. This kind of stuff happened.

As it turns out, other things also happened. Her long-lost husband was actually in town practicing medicine and using the creepy name Chillingworth. An eloquent minister is revealed to be the baby’s daddy, which stresses him out. There is a meteor that looks like a red A. An escape to Europe is planned, then doesn’t pan out. Revenge is sought by Chillingworth, then abandoned in frustration. Just think 17th century version of the movie “Something to Talk About” starring Julia Roberts and Dennis Quaid and I think you’ll get it.

Anyway, at the time of reading, I did not like The SL. As I recall, my analysis of the book was extensive. Using topical high school sophistry, I attempted a two-pronged attack, using the “Why were the Puritans so crazy?” argument and a less effective “personal experience with sin” component that pushed my grade into the low B’s. I have since re-visited The SL (full disclosure: was forced to, in college) and can now better appreciate the themes in the book; sin, civilization vs the wild, old vs new, guilt, etc, but–what I’ve found looking back at these books– is that, aside from The Great Gatsby, A Catcher in the Rye, and the underrated A Yellow Raft in Blue Water, I didn’t “get” any of them while still in school and therefore, didn’t like them.  No doubt part of this can be blamed on the fact that I was probably “reading” these literary masterpieces while playing Goldeneye on Nintendo 64 and talking on my private phone line to my GF about whose house we were going to watch “Dawson’s Creek” at, but still–for a man of words– this is kind of embarrassing.

But said embarrassment leads me to a question (or more of a statement about a question): I want to know which books you’ve read that–despite them receiving either critical, popular or social-emotional acclaim–you just really didn’t like. Or “get”. Especially if you lied about liking or “getting” them because you were ashamed to admit it and you didn’t want that chick who sits across from you with the black rectangular framed glasses, the leather-bound notebook, and the smug, world-weary expression to have the satisfaction of knowing you didn’t get them…or, you know, something like that.

I await your embarrassment(z).

I’ve got one hand in my pocket,
and the other one is giving a high five

Alanis,
Morissette

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20 Responses to Reviews of Books I Was Forced To Read in High School, Part 2: The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne

  1. I hated the Scarlet Letter when I read it in high school but thoroughly enjoyed reading my daughter’s Cliff Notes when she was in high school. After reading Kevin’s original comment, I decided "Wuthering Heights" was the book I disliked most. I saw a "made for television" movie which starred Timothy Dalton and Anna Calder Marshall. I can see the commercial to this date, and I guess this was the early 70’s. I have no idea what happened to Anna, but after falling in "lust" with Dalton, I had to read the book. I did and was committed to reading the whole thing only in the hope of seeing Dalton again. I was quite disappointed.

    I have to admit the only Disney movie I truly hated was "The Hunchback of Notre Dame." While I only admit to reading the Cliff notes of Hunchback, the sanitized Disney version left me cold. Much like the story of "Pocahontas" was sanitized for the Disney screen, there are just some stories which should not be disney-ized. Disney’s version of historical and fictional characters rewrites history for a new generation who will never have the patience to read the originals. BTW, I love Disney’s Beauty and Beast. Hunchback and Pocahontas, to me are simply poor marketing choices on Disney’s part.

  2. Leon "P. Diddy" Spinks says:

    Funny stuff. That Clipse song is hot, by the way.

  3. Rex Grossman says:

    I don’t like Poe. Or really anything besides Twain and that guy who wrote the satire about selling or eating your children–Swift– from before the 20th century. Pray for me.

  4. Artemis Greenleaf says:

    In school, I hated (no, detested) anything Faulkner. Loved Camus and Sartre, tho’. More recently, I just couldn’t bring myself to finish either Wicked or The Curious Adventure of the Dog in the Night.

  5. Chris says:

    It was Jane Eyre for me. Since high school I’ve had a love/hate relationship with her and have tried desperately to at least find a movie or mini-series to smooth out these conflicting feelings for the story. I remember reading it in school and thought, "I am NEVER going to get through this story. The pages are NOT moving…"
    There was something about Jane that made me want to cheer her on and something that made me want to say, "Stop letting people treat you like that!!" She was a bundle of emotions, experiences, and longings and disappointments that I still have a hard time unpacking. Maybe it just exhausted me. But anyway, I’ve recently accepted that she is something I can’t explain and that’s just how it is.

  6. David Jordan says:

    At the risk of bringing down upon myself the wrath of Jane Austen groupies throughout the world, I’d have to say “Emma” ranks at the top of my required bad reading list. I encountered it in a college freshman lit course, carried around my copy for most of a term trying to force myself to read all about those British country-manor twits and twitesses and their Love Problems, wound up facing finals with a tattered paperback and no actual knowledge of plot, characters, themes, etc. The week before exams — appropriately known as “dead week” — I wound up in the hospital with viral pneumonia. Bed-bound and denied visitors by a quarantine, I finally trudged through “Emma.” Such boring drivel! Now Jane Austen has become something of a retro matinee idol, with people cranking out biographies of her, novels about her, screenplays based on her works. I didn’t get Emma, I don’t get Jane and I don’t get her contemporary celebrity/popularity.

  7. Kevin Alexander says:

    Yael– fantastic comment, especially the "complete with pseudo-Jungian character analysis". Hilarious. I, too, when forced to talk about something I sort of knew, would rely on some quick speculation about the characters motivations using both the most basic knowledge from my AP Psychology class and phrases I’d picked up watching that movie where Denzel portrays a paralyzed detective. I’m 73% sure it’s called the Bone Collector

  8. Yael says:

    In tenth grade, I was behind on all the books I was supposed to have read for my Honors English class one semester. I remember one night I had to read Tobacco Road, Lost Horizons, AND The Mayor of Casterbridge…. for a final the next morning. Yes, you read correctly – all in ONE night. I read Tobacco Road first, because it was the shortest. I think there was a guy in it. Then I read Lost Horizons… fast. Something about Shangri-La and a mountaintop and the fountain of youth. It’s all a blur… But the piece de résistance of cramming was the (ingenious? desperate?) way I ultra-speed-read The Mayor of Casterbridge. It was over 500 pages. It was getting late. So I sat with a stop-watch calculator by my side, trained myself to hit START-STOP-RESET with my left hand without looking at the buttons, and allotted myself a certain number of seconds per page. To warm up, it was 30 seconds a page. Once I gained momentum, I was doing a reckless FIVE seconds per page – START read read read read read glance-at-calculator-stop-watch STOP RESET START read read read read read STOP RESET START… I went into a kind of hyper-alert page-skimming state and finished the book in under an hour. My heart was pumping adrenaline like crazy and I felt more than a little insane. I now have no memory of any of these three books at all (it takes all of my mental energy just to remember the title of The Mayor of Casterbridge and even that I hate), but I knew them enough at the time to answer questions about them on the final – including short essays, complete with pseudo-Jungian character analysis. I got an A.

  9. Kevin Alexander says:

    Oh and Genevieve, I’m pretty sure with Web 2.0, you can do anything. Anything! Or maybe that’s in Second Life… I can never remember.

  10. Kevin Alexander says:

    Michelle– totally. I think that is more the point i was trying to make; that because i HAD to read and HAD to analyze these books, I couldn’t really appreciate them. In fact, they came in with a handicap because, after all, they were just homework. And Chillingworth sounds like either a penguin or an above average butler.

    And Mary Helen– I think meeting an author–especially one like Vonnegut– would potentially disqualify me from ever being able to objectively regard any of their work past that point… I’d be too busy reading their books in public and casually working the fact that I’d met them into the conversation. I’m obscenely jealous.

  11. Michelle says:

    Oh, the Scarlett Letter…in AP lit my senior year I was forced to read it and despised it from the beginning. Talking about it in class wasn’t any better, especially since we spent an entire semester analyzing it to death (honestly, how many times can you bring new insight into what’s red vs. what’s black?). Which brings me to my point: I’ve always thought that if you overanalyze anything you kill any possible enjoyment in it. I loved To Kill A Mockingbird and reread it at least once a year until we were forced to analyze it in class to the point where I began to hate it. I haven’t read it since.
    I also thought Chillingworth sounded like a penguin.
    Love your columns, by the way.

  12. Kevin Alexander says:

    Wow. A lot of action. Nolan, I completely agree with your first point–but I imagine it must be so, so hard to come up with something fresh and new and equally as good if your first book was a blockbuster. I can imagine your agent and publisher would be pushing for the same kind of thing, since that’s what made you successful, and it would be hard to argue with all of that money. Maybe it’s just really hard to write on a yacht.

  13. Gabrielle says:

    For more modern books that were supposedly amazing… Libba Bray’s "A Great and Terrible Beauty." It’s sold all these copies, it looks like a great Gothic novel, but I thought the writing was self-conscious. I barely finished it. For older stuff… I’m a huge Austenian, but "Emma"? so boring. I think Jane was just twiddling thumbs at that point.

  14. Anne says:

    OMG Susan, I’m so sorry to be the opposite, but I loved Wuthering Heights. Heathcliff and Cathrine’s love/hate relationship just makes me want to shake someone. They love each other so much, but they spend a life time hurting each other, sometimes inadvertanly sometimes out of spite. Don’t spit, but I’m actually re-reading it now…if I could only capture the intense love between them in my own characters… If you don’t like romances, then no biggie but if you do, and just couldn’t get into it, then I’d suggest try reading it again. The first 4 chapters are annoying because its all about the tenet, Mr. Lockwood, getting to know everyone-a bit confusing. I say it gets clear and good on page 24, Chapter 4, when the story really begins and you learn how it all began. I like how Emily Bronte wrote. I don’t know enough to give a critique on it…I’m sure that I sound like a hick, but her words sound good to my ear. Her story got to me on an emotional level. Perhaps her writing is "flowery??? or old fashion??? or silly???, but I like it. Her words are so vivid to me. " For example, mid-page 7, chapter 2, "Wretched inmates!" I ejaculated, mentally, "You deserve perpetual isolation from your species for your churlish inhospitality." Here’s another, one more. It’s longer, but I just love this scene; the image is so clear. (Page 19, Chapter 3-Dream scene) I heard distinctly the gusty wind, and the driving of the snow; I heard, also, the fir-bough repeat its teasing sound, and ascribed it to the right cause: but it annoyed me so much, that I resolved to silence it, if possible; and, I thought, I rose and endeavoured to unhasp the casement. The hook was sodered into the staple: a circumstance observed by me when awake, but forgotten. "I must stop in, nevertheless!" I muttered, knocking my knuckles through the glass, and stretching an arm out to seize the importunate branch; instead of which, my fingers closed on the fingers of a little, ice-cold hand! The intense horror of nightmare came over me: I tried to draw back my arm, but the hand clung to it, and a most melancholy voice sobbed, "Let me in -let me in!" "Who are you?" I asked, struggling, meanwhile, to disengage myself. "Catherine Linton," it replied shiveringly (why did I think of Linton? I had read Earnshaw twenty times for Linton). "I’m come home: I’d lost my way on the moor!" As it spoke, I discerned, obscurely, a child’s face looking through the window. Terror made me cruel; and, finding it useless to attempt shaking the creature off, I pulled its wrist on to the broken pane, rubbed it to and fro till the blood ran down and soaked the bedclothes: still it wailed, "Let me in!" and maintained its tenacious grip, almost maddening me with fear. "How can I!" I said at length. "Let me go, if you want me to let you in!" The fingers relaxed… —Holy Moses,I LOVE IT!!! but that’s just me. If your not into this type of stuff, then that’s fine. The names of different characters and their relationhips are confusing, but I have a family tree if your interested in giving it a second try but admittedly you have to like romances to enjoy it.

  15. Susan says:

    Uh, Wuthering Heights. Though I loved Jane Eyre, I could not get into Heathcliff and co. I barely even remember the book itself (just how much I hated it), which leads me to believe that perhaps I found the first two chapters too terrible to finish the book.

  16. Mary Helen says:

    Kurt Vonnegut wrote a number of works, the first of which I was subjected to, being Slaughterhouse Five. At my young age, it made no sense, but some of that was because I was going "ugh" and "oooo-ugh" and reading with one eye closed through parts of it. I also had to re-read sentences, and paragraphs to see where I’d "missed something" and felt I was lost a great deal throughout the work.

    On re-reading it in college, I was amazed at how intelligent and insightful and interesting (albeit still a little "ughy") it had become. It probably didn’t hurt that Mr. Vonnegut came to our campus and I got to meet him in person, share a meal, and converse with him.

    He had done the cameo spot in Back to School with Rodney Dangerfield by then. Much to the horror of those in the Language and Literature Department, all my acedemic superiors, I asked Mr. Vonnegut what he thought of Rodney "in real life"–to which he assured me, "Mr. Dangerfield is a pig", and he thought I was "very astute, and had asked him the best question of the evening." I’ve like all of his work ever since.

  17. Liza Martz says:

    In the tenth grade I had to read "The Journal of the Plague Year" by Daniel DeFoe. It had its interestingly grisly moments; wagons trundling down the filthy streets laden with putrid, rotting corpses. But for the most part it was dull, depressing, and completely irrelevant to anything in my life.

    The only benefit I got from being forced to read it, was the discovery of that wonderful learning tool, Cliff’s Notes. I read Cliff’s version instead of Daniel DeFoe’s and got an A+ on the exam.

  18. Elizabeth says:

    I’m deeply suspicious of all "classics," having encountered so many that I hated and/or didn’t "get," but I think the worst had to be "The Hunchback of Notre Dame." I loved the Disney movie, so I went and found the book. At the age of twelve. This was not a good decision. I was an advanced reader for my age, but I still couldn’t make much sense out of it, and what I could understand, I hated. Give me the Disney version any day!

  19. Nolan Lewis says:

    Actually I read a lot more books than I see promoted. My biggest gripe is writers who (whom) start out with a block-buster that is a good read, then follow with several sequels. They keep writing long after they have have exausted the subject, just because they have a contract or someone is still buying their books because of their reputation. I could name several, but may they rest in peace.

    Next in line is the big time writer who doesn’t have time to write himself (too busy spending all of that money) so he/she hires an assistant. I suspect the writer becomes only the editor. On second thought.. perhaps these guys are the ones mentioned in the first paragraph who run out of a plot line and hire someone with a fresh mind to dream one up. Again I could name several among my previous favorites.

  20. Genevieve Cancienne says:

    I remember not enjoying The Scarlet Letter at all in 11th grade because I only really liked books where the narrator had a conversational style. It didn’t matter that the plot line had an interesting soap opera type of drama to it, plot was nothing to me without a charming, lyrical voice to tell the story. I still prefer coversational narration, but now I can appreciate other styles as well. The piece of literature that I think I despised most of all in high school was Jack London’s short story "To Build a Fire." I absolutely detested this story, but had to write an essay about it and I really wanted my Enlgish teacher’s approval because he was awesome. I don’t even remember what I wrote, but I didn’t get a good grade because I had no idea what I was talking about in the first place. I think the main problem I had with the story was that I had no sympathy for the main character who I found flat and stupid. Of course, now I know that Jack London did a really good job of getting me to feel the way nature felt for the poor schmuck who freezes to death. The point is that nature is indifferent to him and more powerful, and he dies as a result of his own arrogance. So now I just have to go back in time and explain this to the sixteen year old version of myself who could then write a superb essay that will blow the mind of my young English teacher and win his love and respect. Doable ya think?

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