Peter Derk's Reviews > The Scarlet Letter

The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne
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It's great to finally get back to the classics. It's been far too long since I read a book with careful intensity, noting throwaway lines that are likely to show up on a multiple choice or short answer test that misses the main themes of a book entirely while managing to ask lots of questions like, "In the fourth chapter, what kind of shoes was [character you don't even remember] wearing?"

I was thinking maybe it would be nice to read a book like this without worrying about that stuff, just absorbing it for what it was and then moving on through my life drunk.

Wrong. Wrong, wrong, wrong.

It's hard to know where to start with this thing.

The prose itself is almost unreadable. Let me give you an example of what a sentence in this book is like:

A man- who was born in a small town, which bore no resemblance to the town his parents imagined for him when they settled in the area over 40 years ago with every intention of starting a small business selling gift baskets online that sort of petered out after bigger companies like FTD caught onto the whole thing and ran the little guys out with predatory pricing- decided to go for a walk one day.

I shit you not. Whenever I saw a dash I'd skip down to find the second dash, and usually managed to cruise through half a page to find the relevant piece where the prose picked up again.

Word on the street is that Hawthorne, who published the book in 1850, actually wrote it to seem EVEN MORE old-timey than it was, which is pretty goddamn old-timey at this point. As far as I can tell, writing old-timey means:

1. Describing furniture and clothing in such exhaustive detail that royal wedding coverage appears shabby and underdeveloped.

2. Using commas wherever the fuck you feel like it.

3. Structuring the plot in such a way that you already know everything that's going to happen way before it does.

Let's talk plot while we're on the topic.

The plot is like Dynasty with all the juicy parts pulled out. I'm serious. All events could be summed up by video of a guy sitting in front of a sign that says, "Banging people isn't so bad" and winking from time to time. One of the characters is damned, and as she walks through the forest the bits of light that dot the trail through the canopy of trees literally vanish before she can walk into them. Now this would be fine in a book where the damned character was in the woods, say, leading an army of orcs. But in a book where the sexual and social mores of Puritan society are called into question, it kind of overdoes everything and kills the mood.

So it all begs the question: What the fuck is going on with these classics?

The Scarlet Letter, according to a recent study, is the sixth-most taught book in American high schools. It's very popular, and you can hardly enter a Barnes and Noble without seeing a new version with such awesome cover art that it almost tricks you into buying it.

I have a frequent argument with my brother regarding what makes things (movies, books, whatever) great. To him, for example, a movie might be great because it's the first movie to usher in a new era in filmmaking, really redefining an era while paying a loving homage to the past. Context is important to him, and reading the stuff on the IMDB page is part of the movie experience in his world.

For me, I don't really give a shit about context. Knowing that Hawthorne had certain feelings about Puritanism based on his ancestry doesn't really matter much to me. Finding out that the main character was based loosely on the author's wife doesn't really do a whole lot for me. In other words, I demand to be entertained on at least some level, and if the level of entertainment doesn't spur me on to dig deeper, I think that's a failure of the art and not an example of my own laziness contributing to my dislike of the art in question.

Furthermore, when the prose is TOO challenging I am constantly thinking, "This is a book I am reading and here is the next line of this book." I am not at all swept up in the narrative and therefore don't enjoy it nearly as much.

I like to think of books as being like magicians. Take a David Copperfield...the magician, not the book. His schtick is to do amazing tricks that appear effortless on his part, which is why they are, well, magical. David Blaine, on the other hand, performs feats that do not appear effortless whatsoever, and therefore far less magical. It takes a great writer to write a great book. It takes an even better writer to write a great book that appears nearly effortless.

One might accuse me of rarely reading challenging books, and maybe it's true. I find myself drawn to books that compel me to finish them as opposed to those that I feel I have to slog through while other books are sitting in growing piles around my apartment, calling out to me with their promises of genuine laughs, heartbreak that is relevant to me, and prose that doesn't challenge me to the point that it's more of a barrier to the story than anything.

Perhaps most telling, at the book club meeting we were discussing this last night, and an older lady asked a pretty decent question: "Why is this considered a classic?"

There are two answers, one that is what the Everyman Library will tell you and one that I would tell you.

Everyman would say that the book is a classic because it is an excellent snapshot of a historical period. It has a narrative set within a framework that allows us to better understand our roots as Americans. The issues of people's perceptions of women and rights of women are still very alive today. Overall, it gives us a chance to examine our own society through the lens of fiction, therefore re-framing the conversation to make it less personal and easier to examine without bias. Blah, blah, blah.

I would say it's a classic because it was one of the more palatable books that came out during the period when "classics" were made. I would also point out that the canonized classics are never revised. We never go back and say which books maybe have less to say about our lives than they used to, or which might still be relevant but have been usurped by something that is closer to the lives we live today. I would also say that it continues to be taught in schools because the kind of people who end up teaching high school English are most often people who have a deep and abiding respect for these types of books and identified with these types of books at around that time in their lives. I think there are a lot of people out there who never liked these books, and rather than making their voices heard about what they think people should read they just drop out of the world of books altogether.

My point is, I think this is a bad book. It's got low readability, even for adults. The plot is melodramatic. The characters are single-dimensional crap, the women being constant victims of the time and the men being weak examples of humanity. Also, a very serious story is halted in places where we are expected to believe that magic letter A's pop up in the sky like you might see in an episode of Sesame Street.

It must have been a very exciting book in its time, without a doubt based on its sales. And if this kind of book is your thing, good for you. I don't begrudge you your joy. It's just not a book that I would ever dream of foisting on someone else, nor would I recommend reading it unless you are absolutely required.
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Comments (showing 1-20 of 20) (20 new)

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message 1: by Erin (new)

Erin This is my favorite review of the year.


message 2: by Khris (new)

Khris Entertaining review! Agreed that some classics suck. But some don't. Sometimes, when I'm reading a good classic, I despair that so many contemporary reads come off as either anemic, shallow pieces of shit or worse, self-conscious, self-satisfied pieces of shit . And I thought it might be a generational, age thing. Sadly, it's not. But I have to agree about Hawthorne....zzzzzz


Peter Derk Erin wrote: "This is my favorite review of the year."

Aw, shucks.


Peter Derk Khris wrote: "Entertaining review! Agreed that some classics suck. But some don't. Sometimes, when I'm reading a good classic, I despair that so many contemporary reads come off as either anemic, shallow piec..."

I suppose. Who's that guy who said 90% of everything is crap? Sturgeon! I think he's right about classics, too.


message 5: by Khris (new)

Khris Tis true, tis true.


message 6: by Victoria (new)

Victoria I feel the need to defend this book -- granted it's been many years since I read it. I lived in New England at the time, visited Hawthorne's home -- during the tour I could literally FEEL a dark cloud of oppression and legalism hovering in the air -- have you ever had a bad case of the "willies"? That's what it felt like -- but maybe that's because the house is in Salem?!

Therefore, for me, this book is a subtle yet beautiful horror novel -- I still get chills when I think of certain scenes. Chillingworth's deformed body, Dimmesdale's physical suffering and tormented soul, the mystical forest, the scaffold, and the "devil child" Pearl. Even the letter "A" on Hester's chest creeped me out. I was entranced by this book. Your review inspired me to re-read it -- and perhaps I will. But maybe then I'll have the same reaction as you did and spoil my enchantment! And yes, Peter, I added lots o' hyphens in this comment -- just for you!


Peter Derk Victoria wrote: "I feel the need to defend this book -- granted it's been many years since I read it. I lived in New England at the time, visited Hawthorne's home -- during the tour I could literally FEEL a dark cl..."

I hear what you're saying.
I guess I missed out on a lot of that kind of stuff. Never lived in New England, grew up in a home completely devoid of religion.

I certainly wouldn't begrudge you your enjoyment of it, and other people have expressed to me the same thing, so you're not alone.

Part of the issue may be that these books are not "for" me. In other words, when I don't enjoy a romantic comedy I don't make a big deal out of it because it wasn't made with the goal of entertaining me.

However, there is a definite pressure in life to like the classics, and unlike just about anything else, when you don't like the classics there's a stigma that it has something to do with your intelligence or willingness to work hard as a reader.

I think my real issue is this elevation of classics to be these amazing pieces of literature that do everything just right, and if I read this book as more of a gothic horror than a morality play I probably would have quit it as quickly, but I would have felt less strongly about it.


Meagan OMG. Book discussion alert! :)


message 9: by Victoria (new)

Victoria I agree wholeheartedly about the misnomer that all classics do "EVERYthing just right." I'm with ya there. I read an interview with Johnny Depp where he said he avoids books that someone says he "should" read. Life is too short to read what you "should." Instead, read what you "want" and even what you "need" -- but don't let "should" be your guide.


message 10: by Peter (new) - rated it 1 star

Peter Derk Victoria wrote: "I agree wholeheartedly about the misnomer that all classics do "EVERYthing just right." I'm with ya there. I read an interview with Johnny Depp where he said he avoids books that someone says he "s..."

Damn it. Why would you make it harder for me to hate Johnny Depp? Just when I was settling in to a nice, slow loathe...


Sabrina I LOVE your review. Just finished the book for the 1st time and have to agree with you.


message 12: by Peter (new) - rated it 1 star

Peter Derk Hey, thanks. Just doing my part to spin some authors in their graves.


message 13: by Peter (new) - rated it 1 star

Peter Derk Benjamin wrote: "I read the first couple of paragraphs and then got bored with your prose. I give your review one star."

Good one. Couldn't help but notice you gave the book 5 stars. Now I know where the world's supply of tweed is being funneled.


message 14: by Peter (last edited Oct 22, 2012 12:34PM) (new) - rated it 1 star

Peter Derk Hey man, takes all kinds.

I would like to commend you for your bravery in defending a book that is 1 million years old and considered a classic.

Some people probably like you. I don't like you.


message 15: by Erin (new)

Erin "Angry comic book guy," but he's the one who is generalizing? Speaking of long-winded rants...

This was still my favorite review of 2011. I'm delighted that it came up on my updates to reread.


message 16: by Jeffrey (new)

Jeffrey Loved you review, thanks!


message 17: by Marjan (new)

Marjan oh I love your review! and I also love the name of bookshelf you put this book into! lol


message 18: by Peter (new) - rated it 1 star

Peter Derk Jeffrey wrote: "Loved you review, thanks!"

Thanks, Jeffrey. It was a pleasure to write it. Sort of.


message 19: by Peter (new) - rated it 1 star

Peter Derk Amestris wrote: "oh I love your review! and I also love the name of bookshelf you put this book into! lol"

Ha! I think you're the first person who noticed. So far, no other books have joined it. But who knows what the future may hold...


message 20: by Mike (new)

Mike Came for the bookshelf, stayed for the hilarious Sesame Street reference.

I did a stint of "reading the classics" in my 20's, but never went for these dead-obviously-boring books, and even then I felt like it was a societal obligation not a pleasure of my soul. Mega-yawn. I'll keep putting "important" movies on my Netflix queue, never to be watched, but I'm done even pretending for a minute that I'm going to ever waste my time forcing myself to read Hemingway or Homer just to call myself a man.


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