Thursday, October 16, 2008

Reading Hawthorne in the Fall

A cancelled class left me with a free moment or two. It was a fall day -- the blue-sky kind, you know, where it looks like summer if you look straight up. If you find a good patch of sun those days can feel like summer too. My search didn't take long.

I balanced my obscene fountain drink on the arm of a bright blue, south-facing bench, and balanced myself and my book on the seat. "A warm place," I muttered. I talk to myself in public, but quietly and mysteriously enough that (hopefully) no one can tell.

I pried open the fat volume of American literature, and landed right where I wanted to be. Hawthorne's The Scarlet Letter is easy enough to find -- since the entire novel is reprinted in the anthology, the pages are a different tint of white from the rest. Penguin managed to find a tree that slices even thinner than the delicately shaved trunks that make up Norton's Anthologies.

The sun was at forty-five degrees. There was a breeze. I couldn't face the sun and read through the reflection off the bright white pages, nor could I tolerate the cold that was settling into the north-facing back of my neck, as much as my neck appreciated the touch of the breeze. I had to pick a side. So I presented my best side, my right side, to the sun.

So I delved into "The Custom-House," the introduction to the novel. I have read The Scarlet Letter twice before, but never had I seen it with its intro intact. I have had the same pocket version of it since I was about eleven years old.

My middle-school class had got the leftover books when the high school cleaned out their library, so I naturally had rifled through and took home several volumes which were far too advanced for a sixth grade mind. I slowly got through that Hawthorne novel, re-reading every sentence and then every paragraph, and then prompty forgot what I'd read. I have a feeling I retained some of the vocabulary and I certainly gained a lifelong fondness of nineteenth century sentence structures. But nothing of Hester or Dimmesdale was left in my skull when I dusted the book off for eleventh grade english. Although a pass at the novel as a sixteen-year-old was much easier.

This is perhaps the only book with which I've had such a long relationship. However, now that I plan to be a scholar of books (and other written things), a familiarity spanning only seventeen years will soon be a trifle.

These thoughts distracted me from my reading, and so did Hawthorne himself. Having only read the novel and some few short stories of his, I had no idea about his sense of humor. At each chuckle I'd look up an be even further distracted by the trees.

I remembered then that it was not summer, despite the sunny positioning of my neck and face and the brightness everywhere. No, some of the bright things were trees, and that meant fall. I tried to pick a name for each of the colors of the three trees that formed a display by the street.

One was definitely gold, the kind of splendid gold you'd imagine in a palace. But that is so material, I thought, Why does the tree have to look like something of value? The next tree looked like a pumpkin color, but as if a little white had been added to tint it a softer orange. It was Dreamsicle orange! But why does this tree have to look like a food product? I thought, Why does it remind me of an artificial flavor? The last tree was the same species as the first, and upon examining its particular hue of gold, I was then in a quandry over which gold was really more "Golden." I decided not to assign symbols or even colors to trees. They are trees, and I should be able to take them in as such, without mitigation through any kind of tree-valuation system.

Between the trees and the changing sunlight (a puffy cloud blotted out the sun for less than a minute and I felt my lips turn purple), I did not get far in my reading. I watched the clouds to see when the sun might make its reentrance, but I could not perceive any movement. I ran for cover from that eerily static, painted-on sky and warmed myself in the library before heading home.

After the sun had gone down, I tackled it again. Only now my house seemed to be colder than my breezy afternoon on the bench. I put the heater on a modest 65 degrees, and sat right next to it. My afternoon dilemma was reenacted. I could not face the heater for fear of the book catching fire (or my feet catching fire), and I could not put my back to it for my lips were again turning purple and my nose was surely about to follow. So I had to choose a side. The heater got my earlier neglected left profile.

The heater keeps turning off. Hawthorne keeps making me laugh and look up. I am still not finished reading.

". . . the waywardness of an April breeze; which spends its time in airy sport, and has its gusts of inexplicable passion, and is petulant in the best of moods, and chills oftener than caresses you, when you take it to your bosom; in requital of which misdemeanours it will sometimes, of its own vague purpose, kiss your cheek with a kind of doubtful tenderness, and play gently with your hair, and then begone about its other idle business, leaving a dreamy pleasure at your heart."

1 comment:

  1. How I long for warm summer days. I'm such a wuss temperature wise (nothing below 70 or 80). I love how you opened this post. It made me long for warmer temperatures.

    It has been so long since I've read The Scarlet Letter . I never read it in a classroom setting, oddly enough. I know most people have.

    Good! Someone besides me notices how insanely thin those Norton pages are! The few times I've brought it up, I've been looked at like I was bonkers.

    While reading this, I was thinking about some of the books that I have rather long relationships with. Sadly, there are quite a few. I can definitely relate to reading something advanced at a young age and not quite grasping it until later on. The first book I ever read on my own was Black Beauty in the first grade. I attempted to read The Hunchback of Notre Dame in the fifth, and couldn't get past the first few pages. In the seventh grade, I attempted to read Poe (around Christmas time, strangely). Of course, I had no idea at all of what I was reading.

    What a beautiful way to describe the colors of the trees. Darn you for giving me a Dreamsicle craving though (and yes, there are vegan Dreamsicles. I think SoyJoy makes them).

    A tree-valuation system? In every post there's usually one thing that cracks me up. This was it.

    65 degrees? Are you mad?! My brother and I used to crank our heater up to about 80. Drove our parents absolutely up the wall, but we were happy and toasty. Of course, now they've changed our thermostat. Try as I might, I just can't figure the darned thing out. Hopefully Michael will teach me when he comes home for Thanksgiving.

    When I was reading about your second dilemma, I was thinking, "You know if one of those thin pages goes up, they're all going up."

    A good book and a good day, is there anything better?

    I enjoyed this post. It made me want to put off my writing so that I can curl up in my favorite chair and read a good book. I've got the house to myself, so it's the perfect environment to do just that.

    :) Great entry!


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