For many years, I walked right past the Classics section of the bookstore. There was a good reason for this–I was so traumatized in high school from being assigned The Scarlet Letter and Moby Dick, that I promised myself I would never again open a book that was considered Great Literature. And I never break a promise.
But last year, something happened to change all that. Maybe being firmly ensconced in middle age and acutely aware of my own mortality, I began to consider the things in life that I had missed out on. Reading Great Literature topped the list.
I knew there must be a reason the Classics have stood the test of time. If only I could lift the fog of verbosity, repetition, and arcane words, something of value certainly lurked there.
After all, I thought, I’m not an ignorant person. I have a Masters degree, and although it’s in business, not literature, I still believed that, if I set my mind to it, I could get through one of these books and plumb a few gems of brilliance.
And so I bought Jane Eyre. Why did I start with this particular classic? Because Jane Eyre has everything–it is a novel of stunning power, romance and suspense. Imagine the reaction in Victorian England when Jane Eyre was published in 1847. It was a scathing critique of Victorian assumptions about gender and social class–but it became an instant bestseller and was critically acclaimed.
So I began reading Jane Eyre. But every time I hit an odd word, I was stopped cold. I had to re-read sentences, paragraphs, and pages. It became tedious and ponderous. Once again, I couldn’t do it.
I was frustrated, but determined. And so I decided to rewrite Jane Eyre so that I could finally enjoy it. I gently edited each page, retaining its essence, spirit, and as much of the original text as possible. I replaced arcane words with more updated ones.
Months later, I had my own version of Jane Eyre. I read it with immense pleasure. Aha! Now I saw what everyone has raved about for the past 160 years–the spellbinding journey of a poor orphan girl who overcomes cruelty, loneliness, starvation and heartbreak on her quest for independence. Her passionate romance with Mr. Rochester, and her discovery of his devastating secret, forces her to choose between love and self-respect.
I finally realized that Jane Eyre is the story of every woman who struggles for equality and dignity in a society that wants to deny her those rights. It is a true today as it was in Victorian England.
This modicum of success inspired me to tackle my nemesis–The Scarlet Letter. I thought that rewriting this novel, being much shorter, would be easier. It wasn’t. But I persevered, and I was amply rewarded with a belated appreciation of the power and beauty of this classic.
When Nathaniel Hawthorne published his masterpiece in 1850, American authors were trying to establish their legitimacy in the eyes of the English literary world. Until then, we were still viewed as the ignorant colonies.
In the novel, beautiful, defiant Hester Prynne commits adultery, refuses to name the father of her illegitimate child, and is condemned to wear a scarlet A on her breast for the rest of her life. She became the first true heroine of American fiction.
The Scarlet Letter was the first American novel to explore the moral struggle with sin, guilt, and pride; the conflict between the heart and the mind; and the deadly consequences of not being able to forgive ourselves and others.
He came whining to me. “Dad, can I read your version?” On one condition, I replied. First read the original. He did. Then I gave him my version. He earned his own scarlet letter–an A on the exam. Revenge is sweet!
Finally, dear reader, I tackled the ultimate challenge–the White Whale. The Readable Classics version of Moby Dick will be published in February. This achievement will exonerate me from having read only the Cliffnotes version in high school. By the time I finished Chapter 135, I felt like Ahab, being dragged through the sea by the whale. But at least I can go to my watery grave in peace.
Wayne Josephson is the author of two Readable Classics books, Jane Eyre and The Scarlet Letter. Now an avid reader of the classics, he lives in Charlottesville, Virginia, with his wife, three kids, two dogs, and a fat guinea pig.