My junior year of high school, Geoffrey Sheehy announced our Language and Composition class would be reading Nathaniel Hawthorne’s “The Scarlet Letter” as part of our novel unit.
Sheehy, a phenomenal teacher and mentor, motivated me to become a better reader.
However, after turning “The Scarlet Letter’s” front cover painted with a fancy, bold “A,” I faced a problem most students do with required reads: I didn’t want to. The text, though English, felt foreign.
For two chapters, I struggled through the old English and frequently found myself studying the texture of my ceiling. As the second chapter concluded, so did my time with “The Scarlet Letter.” I closed the book, opened my laptop and relied on Sparknotes to carry me through the unit.
Devoted to language, I’m not proud to admit I couldn’t comprehend a book assigned in most high school English classes. But I didn’t abandon the book because I was lazy or the prose made me sleepy. I deserted “The Scarlet Letter” to preserve my confidence as a reader.
Dissecting the syntax for its meaning felt like a chore, the opposite of what I usually feel when I open a book.
For the rest of high school, I avoided any books that showed up on “classic” reading lists or those whose publishing dates started with “18–.” I stuck to books with straight-forward text, blindly believing the tactic would work.
Mark Twain once said, “A classic is something everybody wants to have read, but no one wants to read.”
Books with the most influence, the “classics,” are usually hardest to understand. They’re products of the craft’s masters, who wring the English language of its most vivid expressions and design the alluring plots that appeal readers for centuries.
Reading isn’t just comprehending sentences: it’s inspecting the writing, collecting the clues and reaching conclusions to derive meaning from the work. Reading is not instinct, it’s a skill.
Twain’s classic (ironically), “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn,” is a basic example of this skill’s importance. With no analytical vision, the novel is about a 14-year-old and an escaped slave floating down the Mississippi River on a raft.
But look deeper, and Twain is criticizing the South’s ideologies of sin, salvation and stature with sharp but subtle humor.
When I picked up “The Scarlet Letter,” I wasn’t yet equipped to see these concepts, and instead of pursuing the hidden themes inside the book, I retreated ― the same way I would if was told to play Bach before touching a key.
During my quarantine from classic literature, I came to a realization: the classics mattered.
I saw it in George Saunders’ review of “Johnny Tremain,” and the thousands of Orwell references whilst explaining the modern world. I saw it in Sheehy’s eyes while he recited passages from Huck Finn in his impressive rendition of a Southern accent.
“The second time I stopped reading David Foster Wallace’s ‘Infinite Jest,’ I did not vow to return. I knew I would,” Sheehy said in the second paragraph of “The Payoff.”
Sheehy’s battle with “Infinite Jest” is similar to my battle with classic literature. We both opened our challenges, got lost and conceded. But, we learned the importance of our conquests, and will return when the time is right.
“The Scarlet Letter” may sit on a bookshelf, awaiting my return, and it may be a long time before I open the cover again. But what I’m doing in the meantime is worthwhile: I’m finally learning how to read.