When I first read The Scarlet Letter by Nathanial Hawthorne in high school, I thought the book was amazing. The characters jumped out from the pages and the story held my interest, in spite of the fact it was an English assignment and I had to take notes and write a report by a looming deadline.
When I read the book again in early 2011, I was refreshing my memory of the story before reading Heather: The Missing Years of The Scarlet Letter, A Novel by Paula Reed.
It was hard to keep my attention on the original story, however, because my focus had changed. I am now a victim of today’s “writing rules.” I had trouble with the distant omniscient narrator who only told what he saw. I’m so accustomed to reading first person or close third person novels where we hear the thoughts and feelings of the characters firsthand, that I struggled with catching the characters’ emotions and thoughts strictly from their behavior and body language.
I actually avoided rereading anymore of my old favorites…until this summer.
After visiting the world of Alex Adams’ White Horse, a novel of the end of life as we know it, I was reminded of a book I read in the late 50s: On the Beach by Nevil Shute. This novel is the ultimate downer, but I’ve never forgotten this tale of what many feared would happen to the earth very soon. We still worry it will happen.
At the library, I discovered the classics in their own section, so I perused the shelves a little longer, adding The Razor’s Edge by W. Somerset Maugham, another of my old favorites, to my stack.
Now that I’ve finished reading On the Beach, I’m again bummed about my writer’s training. I was jerked out of the story over and over by wandering points of view. One chapter might start with one of the main characters, he meets up with another character, they separate, and suddenly we’re following the second character to see what she does next. There are often multiple point of view shifts within a chapter. The transitions are pretty good, but it felt odd. I was never sure who I wanted to identify with the most. It’s one more thing we’ve been taught not to do while writing today’s novels.
I remember when I read The Scarlet Letter and On the Beach for the first time. My mind wasn’t cluttered with “rules” and self-editing techniques. I read for enjoyment, or I read to analyze story, theme, and meaning for a class. Has writing ruined my ability to enjoy old favorites? I’m almost afraid to begin The Razor’s Edge.
Have you reread any of your old favorites from the classics lately? What did you find?