Burn the Books, Save the SparkNotes



I have a confession to make.

I hate The Scarlet Letter. I hated it in High School. I hated it in college. I hated it in Grad School.

That might not seem like such a big deal to you, but for me, an English teacher, it was difficult to get over the idea that I could not enjoy a novel considered to be a masterpiece. It was always there, lurking in the back of the American Lit curriculum, and I always kept it at bay. I never wanted to teach it. Never wanted to revisit that forest and that scaffold.

As far as novels of literary merit go, The Scarlet Letter is up there with other great works. But as a staple of High School Literature classes it serves no purpose other than to suck the life out of November and ensure that 90% of the “readers” are more than likely hitting the SparkNotes instead of the real deal. Or Shmoop.

I don’t even have a problem with that. In fact, since knowing the plot of The Scarlet Letter is important just for the general urban knowledge of the thing, I would recommend reading the convenient summary over the novel any day.  No more Hester. No more Dimmesdale. Instead of reading the book,  read the SparkNotes. Find out all about the letter “A” and its symbol. Find out about the father. Get the whole reason Hawthorne wrote the book in the first place without the tears of frustration.  Hawthorne’s incredible short stories provide adequate grounds to talk about author style and literary devices. Why The Scarlet Letter has become so important is beyond me.

I already hear the chorus of school teachers hollering at the sacrilege:

 SparkNotes? What then? Why bother reading? Soon that’s all we will have! Just summaries of books!

Well, probably not, but let’s play that out for a second.

Would students pass a quiz on the book? Probably. Especially if, like most teachers, The Scarlet Letter is taught for the plot and symbols. And why would any kid in 11th grade read the book when they can get by as easily with a well-written summary by a Harvard graduate? And why do teachers even care?

Here’s the deal: If you want kids to read a book, they need a reason to read it beyond plot and characters and summary. Those days are over. Every single student has access to free study guides, notes, essays, and summaries of virtually every text. Teachers are constantly combatting it by asking ridiculously detailed questions to “prove” that the student did or did not read the book.

I understand it, I’ve even been guilty of it, but it’s rubbish.

There has been a serious shift in the way students read and approach novels. Not too long ago, we would read a book and ten years later watch the movie. Now, with movie deals made while books are still in hardback, the opposite is happening. Kids are coming to books through the movies.

I saw that with my own kids. My oldest read every Harry Potter book before the movies. Her sister, though, watched all the movies. But after right before the seventh book was released, she started reading the series. And she loved the books. It opened the door to more books for her.

It was a happy day when my kids decided to love Harry Potter.

It was a happy day when my kids decided to love Harry Potter.

I’ve had students who ran out to see The Great Gatsby and then eagerly asked if we could read the book in class. Students who discovered Austen through the 2005  Pride and Prejudice. Students who love Shakespeare because of Leonardo DiCaprio.

Instead of fighting the resources available, teachers should make peace with their existence and learn how to utilize them to expand student learning and appreciation of texts. Students also need to learn how to use them as study guides instead of replacements. The first time I sent my students home to read a summary of the first few chapters instead of the actual book we were starting in class, they thought I was insane. It was like I told them to spit on the bible or something. But when we started reading the book together, they discussed what they were actually reading. They noticed the subtleties of the author’s writing – the style and structure. That’s the stuff that movies and summaries can’t touch. One student summed it up best. “It’s like watching a trailer before starting the book. Cool.”

I love books. I love reading. I used to preach “reading before viewing” to everyone – my kids, students, even strangers. After all, the books are always better than the films. But, lately, in many instances, the movies seem to be creating readers, not preventing them.

It makes sense. We live in a visual world and are used to expressing our thoughts in 140 characters. Between the Common Core Curriculum slashing texts and pushing excerpts over full novel, things will get worse for writers and readers. I’m not saying that we should give up – burn the books and just read summaries or watch films – but I am saying that fighting the reality won’t work either. Modifying the way kids come to reading is vital if we want to foster the love of reading that most of us got when there were only three television stations that shut off after midnight.

I couldn’t finish Life of Pi when everyone was passing that book around. I couldn’t get into it. But after I saw the movie, I picked it up again and loved it. Maybe all they need to do is come out with a really good movie of The Scarlet Letter and I’ll be motivated to try again.

Until then (and apologies to all you Hester fans), I’m not reading it.

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7 replies

  1. EXCELLENT article! Very interesting and a bit on the radical side, especially for a teacher! So when do the spark notes on the article come out? 🙂

  2. Look you treasonous old biddy, these classics were puritanical religious tomes to scare children to follow a path. Wait, sorry, thinking of The Godfather.
    Gatsby, to me, is not that great.
    When I worked on Broadway, we did the scarlet letter one season, I think Mallory from family ties did the lead, the play brings it to life much better than the book ever did.
    But then the play is the thing. Spoken word brings life, and not just the books on podcast type.

    • I’m sure the play was better.

      I still believe in books. But I think the battle to get kids to read will just be getting harder so it’s time to rethink things. You know, change educational paradigms and whatnot. 🙂

      I wasn’t a fan of Gatsby when I was a student. I loved it after I taught it. Go figure.

  3. I don’t believe you about Life of Pi, you gave me that book long before the movie came out!

    • I know. But I never finished it. I just knew that everyone was reading it, but I just couldn’t get into it. I read it after the movie. (Click on the link, by the way, and you can read my review of the movie. I even mention it there!)


  4. Hey! You’ve never told us that we can read the sparknotes instead of the book!

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