the name’s the thing

Well, so I’ve talked about linguistics, now I guess it’s time to talk about names. Or rather, how names matter. This time, we’ll be scrutinizing Tolkien’s Silmarillion.

When I was in middle school I bragged about reading the dictionary for fun, I think mostly to establish my nerd cred. A sham, naturally. I think I was still mainlining EragonRedwallArtemis Fowl, and Harry Potter instead of actually studying anything. (Probably reading the books under my desk, too. Actually I think I did get in trouble for that in my ninth grade biology class. Whoops.) But the dictionary my parents have – not the huge, unabridged, old one with pages so yellowed they’re orange, but the slightly new-ish one with the gray cover – has a section in the back with male and female names, alphabetized, and their name meanings, and that I did read.

Buddy, that name section of the dictionary was like heroin for my little developing writer brain. I went on a streak, in middle school, where I spent nearly every day after school feverishly typing at my dad’s old Dell desktop, and I crammed it full of half-finished drafts with heroes called Danae and Romulus and all sorts of things. I’ve posted a few of those half-finished ideas before – I don’t have any of the files saved, un/happily, but some of them stuck in my brain quite vividly. Rest in peace, Tess and James, my Pirates of the Caribbean rip-off. I’ll never forget how I had one of you climb up to the crow’s nest of the ship and then jump off and land on the main deck, upright, without breaking a single bone in your body. Truly it was a miracle of illogic.

Anyway! Even if you don’t painstakingly curate the names of your characters the way twelve-year-old me did, the names of characters matter. A Jim and a James and a Jamie might have the same base name, but James is more formal, and Jamie is more gender neutral, and Jim is solidly masculine, possibly even lumberjack-like.

And if a character goes by James, but his mom keeps calling him Jamie even after he’s repeatedly asked her not to, that right there matters – especially if the author treats that as a symptom of a bigger plot point. A coming-of-age story is the first thing that comes to my mind with that example. But there are any number of other possibilities you could explore.

And when a character changes their name … or someone else gives them a new name … then it gets even more interesting.

Continue reading “the name’s the thing”

I thou thee!

Time to talk about linguistics as it pertains to literature — specifically Les Mis, and even more specifically Valjean and Javert. This is going to get pedantic and also very passionate, so buckle up, y’all, it’s gonna be a fun ride.

Several languages — French, Dutch, German, Russian, just to name a few — use two forms of address when speaking to another person (2nd person). French has a handy flowchart here which explains the difference pretty succinctly.

Basically, if a stranger bumps into you on the street, and you don’t want to get into a fistfight, you call them “vous.” But if you do want to get into a fistfight, you call them “tu.”

The nouns and verbs in French to describe this phenomenon, of addressing people in/formally, are tutoyer/tutoiement and vouvoyer/vouvoiement. The same way that gender is hammered into every single part of speech in French (even the chair has a gender, which, that doesn’t make sense to me but you do you, chair), so is in/formality. It’s not something they really emphasize in written literature because to them it’s just as natural as swimming is to a fish. For native English speakers, though, it’s a struggle to convey that cultural and linguistic difference without a couple paragraphs’ worth of explanation.

English used to have an in/formal dichotomy in the 2nd person address. “You” used to be the way a person addressed their teacher or king or possibly their parents, and “thou” was the way they addressed their friends, their children, and their underlings.

The interesting bit about English in/formality is that nowadays the “thee” form is only actively consistently used in places like Rite One of a Christian Protestant church service. We call God “thee” — we address Him informally.

(Yeah, there’s a theological reason for that, but I am not anywhere near qualified to answer that question.)

But in modern media depicting ye olde days, the “thee” form is used pretty haphazardly, addressing any old person any which way, when back in the 1600s that really wasn’t the case. If a princeling talked to some commoner on the street, the prince used “thee” on the commoner; if the commoner used “thee” back at the prince, he would probably have been beaten for the impertinence. There’s a reason all the best Shakespearean insults start with a “thou” — it’s purposefully conveying, through the dang pronoun even before you get to the good part of the insult, that the speaker is the hearer’s superior in every possible way.

With that in mind …

… Javert calls Valjean “tu” throughout the entire book — when he knows it’s Valjean he’s addressing.

Continue reading “I thou thee!”

oh, the horror

Full disclaimer: I’m not, nor have I ever much been in my life, a horror fan. Coraline and Over the Garden Wall is about as spooky as I get, and that’s mild-kiddie-Halloween level. Just like the occasional sprinkling of paprika is about as spicy as I get: it’s not spicy in any way that actually counts.

Gore? Humungously not my thing. Jump scares? Nope. Psychological shenanigans? If it’s got cannibals/incest/people turning into mindless monsters and losing all their humanity? Yeah, that’s a no.

Hey, I watch Game of Thrones for the politics, not … that other stuff. And I can always plug my ears and take off my glasses when the going gets grody. But I won’t read Poe’s “The Black Cat” more than once, and there’s an episode of Doctor Who that I will not watch because of the whole humans-losing-humanity-unwillingly thing. Yeah, the water on Mars one. That one. Awful. Does it technically count as horror? Maybe not to veterans of the horror genre, but it gives mid-twenties me the same willies that a cartoon brain-eating alien gave seven-year-old me.

Actually, that brain-eating alien still gives me the willies.

So take what I say with a big old honking grain of salt.

On the other hand, I freakin’ love the Resurgam trilogy by Joan Frances Turner, which is from the point of view of a zombie and absolutely involves the whole cannibalism thing, and goes into meticulous and nearly poetic detail about the process of corpse decay. It even has the personification of death as this eldritch non-being that is everywhere and everything, and – spoiler alert – is about to swallow the entire planet into nothingness.

But despite the whole zombies-and-existential-dread thing, I don’t think that DustFrail, and Grave count as horror books. Because even with the apocalyptic setting, there’s always a shred of hope, and – spoiler alert – the characters we care most about make it out unscathed. Or, if not unscathed, at least scathed in a way they can accept.

In the horror panel at LTUE, they talked about the horror genre as a loss of control, as something horrible and irrevocable happening, as fear being present and inescapable throughout the story.

In a horror story, even victory counts as a failure. It is impossible to win.

… Huh. I guess that one Doctor Who episode does count as horror after all.

But all of that only means that the dressing of the story, the setting and the species and the time period, are very nice and indeed important things to pay attention to — and must be integrated with the plot — but they do not drive the plot. The Resurgam trilogy takes place in a world where mind-numbing hunger razed society to shreds, but it is never hopeless, and the characters’ victories matter. Zombies and all, they cannot be horror books.

Meanwhile, a story with no supernatural trappings whatsoever can be the worst living hell a body can imagine. Have you looked at the battered women statistics recently?

Horror lives wherever it can. It isn’t where and when you are that counts — it’s what you do.

Les Mis, overview

I’m almost exactly a month late for Victor Hugo’s birthday (the man would have turned 416 on February 26th), but it’s never too late to talk about the man or his work. As far as I know, there is no other author who has managed to motivate a city to completely renovate and curate a crumbling building that had been around for several hundred years, just because he thought architecture was kind of cool.

As far as I know, there is also no other author who would mail someone else a live bat in an envelope. Yes, Victor Hugo was that kind of guy.

Though Lord Byron had a pet bear in college, so who knows, really. Those Romantics were all pretty crazy no matter which side of the Channel they were on.

Hugo’s Notre Dame de Paris is probably the single most influential book he ever wrote, purely because we can see the concrete effects it had in the real world. I could natter about that one, but Lindsay Ellis is much more eloquent on the subject than I am.

No, what I’m qualified to talk about is Les Mis.

Naturally.

Fans call it The Brick because, well, you could probably kill a man with a hardback version. I own six different English translations of the book, some in hardback and some in paperback, because I wrote my senior thesis in college about the differences in those translations as well as translating a few passages from original French into English myself. (Does that establish my nerd credentials? I hope so.) My favorite translation is Fahnestock and MacAfee (FMA), but Hapgood is also really good for getting the historical context of the original text, although I do have a few bones to pick about the tutoiement and vouvoiement in that version. (And … that’s a subject for another post.)

The Denny translation is an okay starter if you’re just dipping your toes into the novel for the first time, though the translator does … take some liberties with the original text. A lot of the original punning is lost, and that’s just a crime.

The Isabel Hapgood English translation of Les Mis is actually available online for free, if you’re ever interested, and handily separated into the discrete chapters/sections for ease of browsing. Let it not be said that classic literature is only for rich snobs. Anyone can be a book snob, rich or poor. Equal opportunity snobbery.

I’ve nattered about Les Mis before now, and if you already know what I’m talking about, it’ll mostly make sense. But if you don’t know what I’m talking about, well, it’s a bit like car jargon. They go on and on about this and that and the other, specs and doodads and stuff, and meanwhile your eyes glaze over and you wait for the salesman to run out of breath.

So! In the spirit of not blabbering on incomprehensibly! Here is a brief run-down of the main characters in Les Misérables:

Continue reading “Les Mis, overview”

adaptations, Hugo style

A couple weeks ago they came out with the main cast of the new Les Mis BBC miniseries that’ll be coming out sometime in the next few years. Filming apparently starts this February on-location in France and Belgium.

Guys, I am yelling about this.

Which, you know, isn’t surprising given that I’m a humungous nerd about the book. A tv mini/series gives you the chance to spread out and really delve into the fun details of a monster like Les Mis (they call it “the brick” for a reason – the unabridged novel is almost 531,000 words long). And while the musical adaptation is a lot of fun, and there have been scads of movie adaptations in the last four decades, most of them haven’t … well … really been all that accurate to the book.

I know, I know. Treat adaptations like they’re completely separate entities and you’ll have more fun. It worked with Neil Gaiman books like Coraline and Stardust, it worked (mostly) with the Harry Potter series, it worked with Wicked by Gregory Maguire. The book-to-movie or book-to-musical transition, which naturally involves snipping a lot of things to make sure it’s at the generally accepted 2-3 hour time limit, means that something’s gotta give. And that’s only taking the plot and characters into account, let alone the execution.

Anytime that you switch media, there are going to be changes you have to make. A graphic novel transmutes fine to a movie or tv series because it’s essentially a storyboard; a novel transmutes fine to a podcast because it’s essentially a script. But going from something with only one medium (pure words, pure sound, that mix with the reader/listener’s imagination to produce an experience unique to each individual that consumes it) to something multimedia (words and image, or image and sound) means that the image in the reader’s head isn’t going to match what you see on stage or screen. How can it? Unless we develop telepathic technology to project our imaginations onto a screen, there’s no way to tailor-fit someone else’s thoughts into a movie. Even a movie or stage director won’t be able to do that exactly, because the actors or the set designers or someone will throw in something different. And sometimes the things that other person thinks up are really awesome. I sure wouldn’t have pegged Coraline for a stop-motion adaptation. But inevitably there’s going to be somebody complaining that the adaptation “isn’t what I pictured.”

The time constraints create the biggest changes, though, and these can make or break an adaptation. Cutting down a megalith like Les Mis into a two-hour movie or a three-hour musical is … well, that’s why a miniseries or a full tv show is a better multimedia idea, just off the top of my head. I mean, heck, just look at the Mortal Instruments series, or A Series of Unfortunate Events. Both had movie adaptations that kinda bombed at the box office, but that are doing really quite well on the small screen. (I still need to watch ASOUE on Netflix … one more New Year’s resolution, I suppose.) It gives the adaptation creators a chance to really take their time with all of the plot.

Wicked the musical and Stardust the movie? Almost completely unrecognizable from their original books. I found the adaptations more enjoyable, but then again I’m prejudiced; as much as I respect Maguire and Gaiman’s writing (and I can’t thank Neil Gaiman enough for introducing me to Terry Pratchett’s books), I … really just don’t have a taste for a lot of the weird stuff that went on in Wicked and Stardust. Sorry, but nihilism and unhappy endings just aren’t my cup of tea. I’m an escapist at heart. And probably, for all the same reasons that I love the adaptations, other people might think they’re too saccharine and dopey and prefer the original books. Whoops. To each their own.

Les Mis? Well …

… This requires a Part 2.

Stay tuned.

this is why I don’t kill my characters

Redemption arcs seem to go one of two ways: either the character dies, or the character lives. Sometimes their dying acts are the ones that redeem them – sometimes the only possible thing that can redeem them is death – sometimes they die immediately after having redeemed themselves, just when things have started looking up again. It all depends on how much you want your readers to yell at the book.

It seems to me that a dead-but-redeemed character is – well, not lazy per se. It definitely has an emotional impact on the other characters, and can throw a nice wrench into the plot. But in terms of character development, there’s not much you can do with a dead person unless you reanimate them somehow. Ghosts, zombies, someone from their past ready to rain bloody vengeance on them, a long lost child, et cetera – a little far-fetched, maybe, but you get the gist. It’s still possible to influence how a character is perceived if you have secrets ready to be revealed at a plot-convenient point. Cough, JKR, cough. But even then, what’s mostly happening is the changed perception of a character – Dumbledore can’t exactly react to having his secrets revealed. Oh no, he used to be Very Good Friends with Wizard Hitler back when they were teenagers. That’s … some loaded information right there, but the guy is dead. Harry can’t confront him about it. No one can. Unless you’re doing a prequel (where the dude is alive), it’s essentially an “oh that’s nice, but what does it have to do with the plot?”

Whereas a redeemed character that lives – now that’s where it gets nice and messy.

Because the thing about redemption is that it isn’t a one-and-done deal. You can’t take a villain, or an anti-hero who’s done some messed up things, and then wave a magic wand and say that everything is fine now because he Had a Change Of Heart. Okay, again, that’s nice, but why did he have a change of heart? How did he take that change and use it to affect the world around him? How are the other characters reacting to this change?

You can’t wring your hands and say “oh I’m terrible” and then just keep doing the destructive things you were doing before. Or, you can (and people often do), but it has to have consequences, and also it doesn’t count as redemption.

Roll your eyes all you like, but the best example I can find of a redemption arc is in Avatar: The Last Airbender. Zuko has a few false starts, and they matter to the plot and the other characters. He’s forced to confront his mistakes and how they affected the world around him. He acknowledges what made him the way he was, and he takes responsibility for his actions, and he actively works to heal the damage he’s done. He develops friendships with the people he once considered enemies. He reconciles with his uncle. He overcomes his rotten family – confronts their toxic behavior – and at the end of the series, he’s grown as a character and become an actual good guy. Yes, it’s a kids’ show that aired on Nickelodeon, but it goes over some really important themes, and it shows that goodness and kindness are things that you do, and traits that you can practice. The show never took it easy on Zuko. He wasn’t handed redemption on a silver platter. He had to work for it, and it made his characterization a hell of a lot stronger.

It’s easy to die for a cause. It’s harder to live for one.

transliterate

Let’s talk about translations.

If you’ve read Cyrano de Bergerac in English, or seen the filmed version with Gerard Depardieu that has yellow English subtitles, that’s one thing. It’s a tragic story about unrequited love, and assumptions, and carefully constructed perceptions of other people, and also two guys willfully deceiving a woman for a ridiculously long period of time. Neat. I kind of want to yell at everyone in that play, but for a lot of French literature that’s par for the course.

If you’ve read Cyrano de Bergerac in French, you very quickly realize that the entire play is written in rhyming couplets.

Now – speaking as someone who’s performed a bit of Shakespeare – if you act in a show that has rhyming verse, and you recite it to emphasize that rhyming verse, pretty soon everything sounds like a nursery rhyme and you want to bash your head against a wall, and so does the audience. It’s much easier, both for the audience and the actors, to pretend that the rhymes don’t exist until you decide to emphasize them for dramatic effect. Great! Spectacular.

The fact remains that Shakespeare, one of the greatest poets in the English language, didn’t write everything in rhymes. There’s a lot of blank verse in there, with some prose tossed in for the peasant characters to remind us that they’re the salt of the earth etc. etc. Shakespeare used rhymes pretty sparingly, specifically for dramatic effect.

Edmond Rostand, who wrote Cyrano de Bergerac – that guy wrote the entire play in rhymes, line for line.

Mind you, French can be a lot easier to rhyme than English, but it’s still impressive.

But it is impossible to translate the entire play from French and still keep all of those rhymes as well as the sense. At some point, you either sacrifice the literal meaning for the aesthetic of the rhyme scheme, or you sacrifice the rhyme scheme. Maybe sometimes they can coincide, but for an entire play that’s nearly 80,000 words long? Yikes. I can respect the man as a poet, that takes some serious chops, but I don’t think even the best translators would be able to preserve 80k worth of pristine rhymes.

Which is … I don’t know if it’s sad or not. In translation theory, there’s the ethnographic which includes connotation and historical context, as well as the literal and the aesthetic. There are some linguistic things that you can only truly get the sense of, by encountering them in their native languages. There are some things that are elegant in one language but that become clunky in another. There are some things that will always be lost in translation, because it’s impossible to convey every connotation of every word without a billion footnotes. And that’s – weird, really, because there are so many works of literature that we wouldn’t have if they hadn’t been translated. How much smaller, how much poorer would our culture be without shared literature from other cultures? Can you imagine a France without the influence of the American Declaration of Independence? Can you imagine a Europe without the influence of Voltaire, or Marx, or Martin Luther? I know I can’t.

Good excuse to push for a multilingual society, I guess. English as the lingua franca is convenient for those of us who learn it from the cradle, but it engenders a complacency that to me feels stagnant, if not toxic. That stereotype about French people gossiping about American tourists is absolutely true – and, look, we get mad when other people refuse to speak English, so why wouldn’t they be mad when we don’t even try to learn French, or Spanish, or any other language? I absolutely get that it’s hard for some people the way math is hard for me – but again, it’s a skill that can be practiced rather than solely a talent to be born with. It means that no matter where we go, we can find a way to communicate with the people around us.

favorite books, revisited

Let’s talk about formative influences. I can natter about books all day.

The Discworld series of course is a given. I’ve mentioned before that Carpe Jugulum was the first proper Disc book I read, back in ninth grade along with Good Omens (another big one – I met my best friend through Good Omens), and Carpe Jugulum has a special place in my heart. Mightily-Praiseworthy-Are-Ye-Who-Exalteth-Om Oats is a pretty minor character in the sprawling Discworld canon, but he and Agnes Nitt were the perfect protagonists for ninth grade me to meet. I can’t really pick just one Disc book as a favorite, though. Unseen Academicals might be about football (or soccer to us Americans), but it’s also about rejecting the status quo, and about overcoming prejudice, and a lot of other things. AndNight Watch, the darkest Disc book but honest and painful and still hopeful for the future; and Reaper Man which taught Death how to be something like human; and Monstrous Regiment, and Going Postal, and The Truth, and, and, and.

The Animorphs and Guardians of Ga’Hoole series were pretty much the basis for my childhood, which explains a lot about me if I think about it; morally ambiguous alien centaurs and a kingdom of talking owls gave me a definitive taste for big character-driven plots in fantastic worlds.

Les Miserables is another huge one, and I’m not just talking word count. I first read the Denny abridged translation of Les Mis as a lark in fall 2011, after having seen the 25th anniversary concert recording (with a surprisingly apt Nick Jonas as Marius) and reading a webcomic about Javert and Commodore Norrington living down the hall from Goblin King Jareth and the Phantom of the Opera. (Yes, it’s on DeviantArt. Yes, I was in high school. Yes, the webcomic is still ongoing.)

The Denny translation is a good starter translation for them as are intimidated by the Brick, so named because even the abridged version is big enough to do serious damage if you hit someone with it. But the Denny translation is not The Best translation; Denny took a lot of liberties with the original text; I personally stand by Fahnestock and MacAfee, or Hapgood for some of the phrasing. Charles Wilbour’s English translation is the one F&A based theirs off, and it’s pretty solid, if slightly archaic; it came out the same year the original French was published, as far as I remember.

Yes, this is what I wrote my senior thesis on.

I have this big old Brick to thank for a lot of the things in my life. I made some really good friends through the online Les Mis fandom, and because of those friends I was introduced to the Silmarillion fandom and made other friends – my editor among them, actually. And the Brick is why I decided to major in French in the first place, and if I hadn’t majored in French, I probably wouldn’t have studied abroad in France – learning linguistic theory for the first time in a foreign language is fun – and I probably wouldn’t have read Huis Clos (aka No Exit) either. It’s kind of amazing to see how the dominoes line up.

Harry Potter and the Death of the Author

I promised I’d talk about Pottermore and touch on Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, so … here we go.

As someone who grew up with the Harry Potter books — in first grade one of our field trips was to see The Sorcerer’s Stone in theaters — I pretty much live and breathe this stuff. It’s not so much something that I actively seek out as something that I know like the back of my hand; it’s as familiar as a beloved stuffed animal, and the series grew along with us. You could probably call millennials the Harry Potter generation and we wouldn’t really protest that much.

Before the Pottermore site ever went live — I want to say this was around 2005 — a piece of fanfiction was written called The Shoebox Project. It centers on the Marauders, James Potter and Sirius Black and their little band, and it’s over two hundred thousand words. Now, say what you will about fanfiction, but even without having read it you’ve got to admit that 200k of anything is a great deal of time and energy to spend on something you’ll never get paid for. Having read it, I think the writing is pretty darn good, and it tells an engaging story. A pair of writers sat down and wrote this Project, and included drawings and photographs, and it was a labor of love.

The reason I was aware of the Shoebox Project — long before I ever felt the interest to read it — was because within that story, one of the plot points is that James Potter’s parents are murdered by Death Eaters.

J.K. Rowling went to the media to say that no, that was incorrect, James Potter’s parents died of old age.

… Which is … great, I guess, except that none of the actual Harry Potter books that were out at that point mentioned the fact that Harry’s grandparents died of old age.

And I remember being ten or so, watching the Today show before heading to school, hearing about JK Rowling saying, very seriously, that James Potter’s parents died of old age and it was incorrect for these fans to write a story in which they didn’t survive to old age.

Ever heard of a concept called “Death of the Author”? It means that once you’ve written something and published it, as long as people are drawing their conclusions from the text, they can draw whatever conclusions they want. You, the author, cannot force them to come to a particular conclusion, nor can you prohibit them from coming to a conclusion you do not like. What’s in the published work is all there is. If you want to write a sequel, then write a sequel; but whatever you write, once you’ve released it into the wild, you can’t control what other people think about it.

It’s the old English Major Maxim: As long as you can prove it with textual citations, you can argue for it.

So JKR, the author, had this idea about James Potter’s parents. She didn’t write it in the books. The fans aren’t mind readers. How could they know? How could she expect them to know? And how could she get mad at them for coming up with a perfectly logical idea with regards to what she had already written?

That incident in ’05 (or ’04, or ’06; I’m hazy on the dates) is JKR saying “Death of the Author doesn’t apply to me.”

Pottermore is that incident magnified, and prettified on a website.

And yeah, it’s neat to be able to Sort yourself into a Hogwarts house (Hufflepuff forever) and see what the website thinks your Patronus should be (polecat?), and it’s neat to have a message board for other fans.

But she’s continually coming out with new content about books that were published … over a decade ago. And treating it like it’s just as canon as the published books.

Sorry, lady, but at this point those are just fancy headcanons, as the fans call them. Ideas that are nice to think about, but that can’t be read as law within the fictional universe, because they only exist in your head. If you want us to think a certain thing about this character, then publish a short story or a sequel or a separate series. Don’t dump snippets on a nice website and then get your nose out of joint when people ignore it.

— which leads into the next subject, Harry Potter and the Cursed Child.

Also known as, Harry Potter and the Flogging the Dead Horse.

Also known as, Harry Potter and the Maybe Quit While You’re Ahead.

Also known as, Harry Potter and the You Actually Wrote A Blue-Haired Daughter of Bellatrix Lestrange And Voldemort? Did You Take A Minute to Maybe Think About This First?

Sometimes — and I would count having your own theme park as one of those times — it’s okay to step back and let a series be finished.

classics

For those who haven’t seen it, the My Cousin Oskaar video is an annual classic when it comes to Daylight Savings Time. I’m a few days late, I know, but it’s one of those videos that just never gets old. Please go watch it and then cackle over Stallone with me.

Speaking of classics …

It’s funny to me that in high school I enjoyed the language of Shakespeare but very much hated the language of The Scarlet Letter. Hawthorne wrote in much the same linguistic era – the linguistic in/formal thee vs you dynamic is one of the things I remember – and the descriptions were florid, and the emotions everyone had were dramatic, and it was a big thinky piece about Sin and Blame and Revenge, and yeah, they made a modern film based off it with Emma Stone so apparently it’s still relevant today. Cool. Neato. If it were rewritten today using modern language, I might like it very much, because the themes are interesting and the characters are interestingly flawed (except for Hester, who … didn’t … do anything wrong? At all? if I remember correctly. She just slept with the wrong man). But the language is so excessive that it interfered with the reading experience for me. I haven’t read it in years but I remember it felt like wading through hip-deep mud just to get to the dang plot. And given that a lot of my classmates reacted the same way, I’m led to believe that if the novel hadn’t been branded as a classic, it would probably fall to the wayside.

Not so with stories like The Crucible. I read The Crucible in the same class where I read The Scarlet Letter, and while I didn’t like the first act at the time because I felt the plot was moving too slowly (that turned out to be a Bored Teenager lens; I think the first act is pretty interesting now), the rest of the play practically reached out and grabbed me. Abigail was one of the most compelling antagonists I’d come across, and the messy complicated nature of John Proctor was something I could sink my teeth into. I remember picking one of Abigail’s monologues to do an audition for the high school play that next year. The language is just archaic enough to remind you that the play took place in the 1690s, but it’s fluid enough to still appeal to a modern audience (and, more importantly, it doesn’t need to be translated heavily like Shakespeare sometimes is).

Whereas The Scarlet Letter was written in the 1850s and … hmmmm … doesn’t really have much of an excuse? Especially when you take other books written in that same time frame like Les Misérables (published 1863) – which, while astoundingly verbose, still managed to be compelling and not clogged up with archaic language.

Honestly, sometimes I think the board of education sits down and determines the reading requirements based on what makes you sound snobby and pretentious, rather than what’s actually enjoyable to read. And before you start bemoaning the Uncultured Youth for their Potter and Tolkien, maybe take a hot second and think about whether you’d rather force someone to read something practically illegible (and enforce reading as a chore), or have them read something fun and thought-provoking (and encourage reading as a hobby).

Oh, and Tolkien’s been a little more of a cultural influence in the past fifty years or so than Hawthorne has, I’ll bet. Take that, elitists.