Sunday, April 28, 2013

The experiment begins

This is how The Scarlet Letter begins:

It is a little remarkable, that—though disinclined to talk overmuch of myself and my affairs at the fireside, and to my personal friends—an autobiographical impulse should twice in my life have taken possession of me, in addressing the public.

Later in the paragraph, the narrator expands on the allure of his alien writerly impulse:

...[A]s thoughts are frozen and utterance benumbed, unless the speaker stand in some true relation with his audience, it may be pardonable to imagine that a friend, a kind and apprehensive, though not the closest friend, is listening to our talk; and then, a native reserve being thawed by this genial consciousness, we may prate of the circumstances that lie around us, and even of ourself, but still keep the inmost Me behind its veil.

When I read the opening paragraph yesterday, I thought: had he lived today, perhaps the narrator would have been a blogger--an introvert who, speaking to the ether through pixels rather than the printed page, imagines connecting to some reader who, out there in that vastness, actually understands him. A computer screen makes a great veil.

Encouraged to have found something to relate to in the very first paragraph, I boldly plowed through the second. Alas, I burst out laughing when I reached the first sentence of the third.

When I teach science writing workshops to engineers, we talk about how science writing differs from other genres of writing. I emphasize the importance, in science writing, of putting verbs near the beginnings of sentences, or at least near the beginnings of main clauses, since readers of English get antsy if they have to wait too long for verbs. I'm not suggesting Romantic novelists like Hawthorne shouldn't have put verbs wherever they wanted to. Popular authors and their publishers presumably knew what they were doing, and obviously The Scarlet Letter isn't a scientific journal article. But golly, putting the verb six words from the end of a 139-word sentence strikes me as a little late. The suspense in the first 133 words is palpable; with every parenthetical aside, with every interjection, the reader wonders: what will the exciting action-climax be?

I thought: A clue! Perhaps sentences like this turned me off when I was 13! Thankfully, I now have sufficient life experience and analytical skills that sentences like this only make me laugh out loud.

Here's the sentence (for the full effect, read it attentively; do not skim!):

In my native town of Salem, at the head of what, half a century ago, in the days of old King Derby, was a bustling wharf—but which is now burdened with decayed wooden warehouses, and exhibits few or no symptoms of commercial life; except, perhaps, a bark or brig, half-way down its melancholy length, discharging hides; or, nearer at hand, a Nova Scotia schooner, pitching out her cargo of firewood—at the head, I say, of this dilapidated wharf, which the tide often overflows, and along which, at the base and in the rear of the row of buildings, the track of many languid years is seen in a border of unthrifty grass—here, with a view from its front windows adown this not very enlivening prospect, and thence across the harbour, stands a spacious edifice of brick.

A big brick building stands in Salem! What more excitement could a 13-year-old want?

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