Tuesday, March 06, 2007

The Big Red A

My latest random book read has been floating around in my personal library since I bought it in junior high or high school. It always seemed like it would get assigned in a class, but it never did, and I never got around to reading it. Has everyone else on earth already read The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne (1850)? Well now, world, I have joined your illustrious ranks!

I really enjoyed this book, but what I liked best about it was not the story itself (although that has a lot of great guilt, morality, and revenge, and a surprisingly modern attitude towards women and men), but the introductory essay by Hawthorne titled "The Custom House" [which you can read here (and you should) -- or just go crazy and read the whole book]. In "The Custom House," the narrator (who is basically Hawthorne) discusses his job at a Custom House in Salem and how he found the source material that he turned into The Scarlet Letter. This essay is so fresh, applicable, and modern-seeming (not to mention occasionally really funny) that I found myself reading every other paragraph out loud to Josh. If you have ever been dissatisfied with your job, frustrated that you don't have enough energy to devote to your own projects, or irritated with your home town, you should read this. Even if you don't get to the rest of the book, it will be worth it.

This bit, for example, seemed the perfect advice for anyone writing a memoir (or a blog, for that matter):

The truth seems to be, however, that, when he casts his leaves forth upon the wind, the author addresses, not the many who will fling aside his volume, or never take it up, but the few who will understand him, better than most of his schoolmates or lifemates. Some authors, indeed, do far more than this, and indulge themselves in such confidential depths of revelation as could fittingly be addressed, only and exclusively, to the one heart and mind of perfect sympathy; as if the printed book, thrown at large on the wide world, were certain to find out the divided segment of the writer’s own nature, and complete his circle of existence by bringing him into communion with it. It is scarcely decorous, however, to speak all, even where we speak impersonally. But—as thoughts are frozen and utterance benumbed, unless the speaker stand in some true relation with his audience—it may be pardonable to imagine that a friend, a kind and apprehensive, though not the closest friend, is listening to our talk; and then, a native reserve being thawed by this genial consciousness, we may prate of the circumstances that lie around us, and even of ourself, but still keep the inmost Me behind its veil. To this extent and within these limits, an author, methinks, may be autobiographical, without violating either the reader’s rights or his own.

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