How many students actually read the novels they are assigned to read?

Not as many as should, I would guess. It seems we’re galloping headlong into some kind of Post-Literate Age in which words – pitifully butchered words – are used for texting, mainly. The Age of Post-Literacy will be one in which images (photos, movies, graphics) reign supreme in people’s lazy minds while classic literature falls by the wayside.

From my high school years I vividly recall some students scrambling to get copies of CliffsNotes just before English exams, hoping they could bluff their way through the tests by getting some rough idea of the plots of the novels and their characters – great novels such as “The Red Badge of Courage” and “The Scarlet Letter.”

I happened to love literature so I never resorted to CliffsNotes, even though they can be helpful for learning about the books’ backgrounds. Just recently, for example, I was re-reading “The Scarlet Letter” for the fourth or fifth time in my life. To refresh my mind about its historical background, I googled the novel’s name and up came “SparkNotes,” which is like CliffsNotes. There, I found an intriguing summary of Puritan New England, just what I was seeking.

I also found some nearly illiterate comments from SparkNotes website users. I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry, but I just had to laugh. Here is what one student wrote:

“SparkNotes is the best! The Scarlet Letter has the most confusing Olde English I think I’ve ever had to muddle through. Thankfully, SparkNotes broke it down for me and explained what’s going on when, ’cause you just can’t understand with all the beating around the bush! The SparkNote was amazingly easy to understand, I just wish someone would rewrite the book with modern English. But anyway, the SparkNote quizzes are SUPER (Let me stress that super) helpful. Since the chapter summaries are so well written, I was actually able to come to class prepared, and not sounding stupid! Thanks a million, SparkNotes!! We students really appreciate you and the hard work you put in so that school actually can make sense, especially Literature!”

It sounds like that young gal might have to push a wheelbarrow full of SparksNotes around with her for the rest of her confusing life so she can figure stuff out. She believes “The Scarlet Letter” was written in “Olde English.” And then she says she’s had to “muddle through” Olde English before. Apparently, anything written in English she doesn’t understand must be “Olde English.” I got a real hoot from the way she added the “e” to “Old,” giving the word the antique flavor of genuine old English (mid-4th Century to mid-12th Century).

I imagine that student’s touching wish for a “modern English” version would sound something like this in the book’s famous, eerie scaffold scene:

Mr. Dimmesdale stood on the wooden scaffold on a spooky night. He acted, like, really scared. He’s that minister dude that had sex with Hester and that’s how come she has to go around wearing that scarlet letter all the time right over her boobs.

Just then, at the platform, Hester and her weird kid Pearl showed up.

“Hester, is that you?” Dimmesdale asked.

“Yup, me and Pearl,” she said.

“Why don’t you both come up and stand here with me?”

“OK, why not? Cool! Be right up.”

When that poor gal graduates from high school – if she ever does – there should be embroidered on her graduation gown in bright red, as blazing and bold as Hester Prynne’s scarlet letter, the following words: “Diploma courtesy of SparkNotes.”

How many others are cheating their way through high school these days? It’s so sad they don’t realize it’s really themselves they are cheating.

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Dennis Dalman
Dennis Dalman

editor@thenewsleaders.com Dalman was born and raised in South St. Cloud, graduated from St. Cloud Tech High School, then graduated from St. Cloud State University with a degree in English (emphasis on American and British literature) and mass communications (emphasis on print journalism). He studied in London, England for a year (1980-81) where he concentrated on British literature, political science, the history of Great Britain and wrote a book-length study of the British writer V.S. Naipaul. Dalman has been a reporter and weekly columnist for more than 30 years and worked for 16 of those years for the Alexandria Echo Press.

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