Doctor of Leadership in Global Perspectives: Crafting Ministry in an Interconnected World

The Scarlet Letter

Written by: on October 4, 2019

Reading can be a daunting challenge.  As someone who loves to read, there have been many books that I have come across where I can feel my eyes glazing over as I try to decipher the meaning of the text.  I vividly remember this occurring for the first time when I was in high school in my AP English class when we were assigned to read Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter (ironically, for this class I had to read Mortimer Adler’s other book, How to Read Literature like a Professor).

Now, I had read difficult books before, but nothing had prepared me for this drudgery.  I remember trying to parse through the old language that seemed to be as foreign as Greek at times, feeling like I would have better luck if it were Greek!  My eyes would cross, I could feel myself dozing off, and the next thing I knew it was the due date for the exam and I had barely made it through a quarter of the book.  Praise be to the mighty Spark Notes for its omniscience and ability to help struggling students pass high school English!

This had a profound impact on me and from that moment on, I decided that I no longer enjoyed reading.  What was once a joy and a pastime was now a chore (and a bore).  When people would ask me if I was reading anything, I would boldly tell them, “Not a chance!  Nathaniel Hawthorne destroyed any love of reading that I once had.”  For all intents and purposes, I embroidered a metaphorical scarlet letter on my chest.

On reflection, a big part of the reason I had such difficulty with The Scarlet Letter was that I had not been taught how to read for understanding.  I had grown accustomed to reading for information.  I could not appreciate the intricacy of theme or literary devices because I did not know how to look for them (sure I had a basic knowledge of what they were, but no real idea of what they looked like).  It would not be until my senior year of high school that our teacher would teach us a method of reading a book intelligently (much to my high school self’s dismay since it required much more work than I wanted to put into it).  But this methodology opened a up a new world of understanding in the world of literature and, what’s more, it restored a joy in reading.

It’s a travesty that we do not know how to read because there is so much we miss in literature.

What I appreciate about Adler’s book is that it acknowledges that different books require different modes of reading.  One should not read a history book in the same way as one reads poetry, or Plumbing for Dummies the way one would read To Kill a Mockingbird.  Different genres require different skillsets for reading effectively.  To try and create a “one size fits all” mentality for reading is to do a disservice to not just the book, but the author as well.

An area this comes up most frequently is in the interpretation of Scripture.  Adler’s methodologies can be applied to the different genres found within the Bible.  Should one interpret the Psalms as one would interpret the Gospel of Matthew?  Or should one interpret the narrative passages of Samuel and Kings with with the imagery of Revelation?  We need to be aware of how we approach various genres if we are to aptly interpret them in a way consistent with the text.

There is a level of discernment that goes into reading books, particularly in whether or not they are actually worth reading and how fast one should actually read them.  Adler writes, “Every book should be read no more slowly than it deserves, and no more quickly than you can read it with satisfaction and comprehension” (42).  Should one read Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s The Cost of Discipleship as fast as one should read Twilight?  I would imagine that a quick read without much deep thought into the latter would suffice while a more careful reading of the former would be more beneficial.

Adler also poses four questions a reader should ask that I find beneficial to any sort of reading (pp 46-47):

  1. What is the book about as a whole?
  2. What is being said in detail, and how?
  3. Is the book true, in whole or part?
  4. What of it?

When we look at these questions, we find that these are active questions that allow us to not only be engaged with the reading, but to help us discern why we read a book.  If we read a history book for the purpose of discerning how to fix a faucet, we may not get the answers we’re looking for.  When we know an author’s purpose in writing a book, it opens a window to the motivation behind it and what they are trying to communicate.

Since I learned to read a book well, it’s almost become a game to discern the meaning of a book (even the “not so serious” books I read).  I would argue that every book has some message it wants to portray (though not every book has the same depth of meaning).  Unlocking the hidden secrets of a text and then cross examining it with other books gives a level of satisfaction that I find hard to get anywhere else.  What I find interesting is how oftentimes I will read an academic book regarding some level of philosophy or ideology and then will find it interwoven into one of the fantasy books that I read.

My ability to read and appreciate literature has changed immensely since my junior year AP English class.  Maybe it’s time that I give The Scarlet Letter another chance.

About the Author

Dylan Branson

Small town Kentuckian living and learning in the big city of Hong Kong.

11 responses to “The Scarlet Letter”

  1. Joe Castillo says:

    Good job Dylan I related to your story. I was intrigued by the statement on the idea that different books require different modes of reading.
    I was wondering about the bible when I read that statement and how we tend to read it like any other book. Well, at least that’s how I feel sometimes. Just like there are different ways to read books definably, the bible is to read with so much more delicacy.

    • Dylan Branson says:

      Definitely. We can’t attribute the same style of reading to the Bible in its entirety. When we do that, we miss the beauty of poetry, the excitement of prose, the mystery of the prophets, etc. We need to read the Bible as its individual genres were meant to be read.

  2. Jer Swigart says:


    Like it seems it has done for you, this particular text has also invited me to return to my original training in reading to discover that I was actually groomed to read for information rather than meaning. (See my post where I tell that story.) I resonate with your story of The Scarlet Letter and coming to terms with the stark reality that while I could read (fuse letters with words to form sentences/paragraphs/pages/books) I also couldn’t. When you find yourself defaulting into consumer reading rather than reading for meaning, what do you do to bring yourself from the former to the latter?

    • Dylan Branson says:

      I try to highlight and make notes as I read (even when I’m reading for pleasure). If I look back through a book and see that there’s a large stretch where I didn’t make note of anything, I realize that it was probably a section I zoned out and (if I find it’s relevant to what I need) will go back and read it.

      I also try to keep a running commentary on things I read by pulling passages of a book and sending it to people to engage in a discussion. For example, I was reading a book called Slow Church this past week (excellent book by the way) and found myself taking snapshots on my phone to send to people to dialogue about different ideas it presented. It sparked a conversation with one person who had written their dissertation using one of the major ideas presented in the book and because of that, it became a more impactful read.

  3. Shawn Cramer says:

    I’m certain this is the first time Bonhoeffer and “Twilight” have ever been used in the same sentence. I latched on to your observation of finding recently engaged philosophical topics in seemingly unrelated genres, like fantasy. I’m learning in my personal research about how healthy it is for idea generation to be involved in multiple fields of thinking and sometimes innovation is simply bringing a solution from one field and applying it in another, seemingly unrelated field.

    Another daunting layer of reading to consider is engaging with a book in comparison to where we are at in the learning process. Like the pithy quote, “One never steps in the same river twice,” we may never read the same book twice, because of our experience, (assumed) growth, and increase in knowledge.

    • Dylan Branson says:

      It’s interesting that you point out we never read the same book twice (reader-response literary criticism is interesting to look at). I think we touched on this a bit while we were walking through London and discussing Lord of the Rings. The first time I read The Fellowship of the Ring, I found it to be the most difficult book I had attempted to read. But in the subsequent times I’ve read it, it really has felt like a different book at times as new ideas and connections are made from different experiences.

      It could be that it’s not that the book has changed, but rather we’ve changed, unlocking new and little tidbits that add a new dimension to a work of literature.

  4. Greg Reich says:

    I as well found myself wanting to re-read certain books, some of which I strongly disagreed with. I may still disagree with the author after I re-read them but this time I will have a better understanding of the authors position and a more realistic ability to articulate my opinions. It has been many years since I have read the Scarlet Letter. Often during that era of literature the author through his story wove social and political opinions through out the text. In the case of the Scarlet Letter the cost of breaking social norms is key to reading the book within the book. Emerson and Thoreau were masters at this.

    • Dylan Branson says:

      Definitely! Those little intricacies were something that I didn’t appreciate in high school (though I guess most high schoolers have difficulty with this). I remember that in one class, we spent a lot of time focusing on the imagery of the rosebush in the novel and people were pulling different meanings out of it. The teacher laughed at the end and said, “Sometimes a rosebush is just a rosebush.” By this she meant that sometimes we can overanalyze and attribute meaning that isn’t there.

      What are some of the books you want to re-read?

  5. Nancy Blackman says:

    I love that you are remaining open to reading The Scarlet Letter (why won’t it let me italicize that?) again. It says alot about who you are and your willingness to stay open, remembering the struggles and drudgery and knowing that, years later, you might have a different relationship with that book.

    How do you connect that all to your current context — a Kentuckian living in a big, chaotic, tumultous city? Are there parts of the city that you would rather not be a part of? What lens do you bring to your situation?

    Thanks for your heart!

  6. John McLarty says:

    I did not have the same love for books as student (high school, college, or graduate level.) I usually began with good intentions, but would often get distracted, confused, or bored. I should probably write letters of apology to any teacher who ever had to slog through one of my last-minute (usually full of manure) book reports or reflection papers. I found Adler to be helpful on many levels in giving me tools and language to engage with books differently. When I’m reading for myself (either for pleasure or professional development,) I find it’s often easier than when I was only reading an assigned text. I admire the love for reading you write about, as well as the process you’ve developed for dialogue with the author and the investigative approach you take to the texts. I’d like to learn how to do this better. Thanks for the challenge.

  7. Steve Wingate says:

    You wrote, “To try and create a “one size fits all” mentality for reading is to do a disservice to not just the book, but the author as well.” I have pushed myself in that direction. Reading is reading. right? wrong! So it is with different cultural experiences which you are probably the best to attest to in our cohort: Kentucky to Hong Kong! We can take principles like Adler laysout but the journey needs to be held lightly given its a different landscape.

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