Whatever Happened to the Scarlet Ibis?

Dear Reader,

Last night, I caught myself remembering a scene from a game show. In “Cash Cab,” the game show host drives through the streets of New York City posing as a taxi driver. When unsuspecting customers get into the cab, they are surprised to learn that they have a chance to answer a series of questions to win money, but they also risk being booted to the curb for three wrong answers. The scene I’m remembering from is when two men were so successful in their responses that they were given the opportunity to go double or nothing on one final question. They went for it and came up with the correct final answer too. However, there was one problem — the contestant mispronounced the answer. He said, “The Scarlet Ilbis” when the game show host was looking for “The Scarlet Ibis.” The one who uttered the response had a thick accent, which likely accounted for the insertion of the “L” sound. But the two men had no luck on that defense. It was a tragedy to see the men progress so far only to be cut down at the last second from forces seemingly beyond their control. Crazily enough, this is an apt metaphor for the 1960 short story The Scarlet Ibis by the novelist, James Hurst that the show referenced.

Reminiscing on this scene from the episode that was likely aired over a decade ago, I decided to re-read The Scarlet Ibis. I was simply struck by this somewhat sweet and terribly tragic story. Have you read The Scarlet Ibis? Think hard, because if you attended high school in the United States after from the late 1960s onward, you may just have come across this work in your English class, at least, that’s how I first encountered this story. The Scarlet Ibis is hardly about its avian namesake and more a story of two brothers, the younger of which is nicknamed Doodle. While the story is simple, the language used is masterful, the observations of the narrator are insightful, and the symbolism is profound. The Scarlet Ibis is a beautiful tragedy triggered in part by man and part by nature. If you need a refresher on the plot, or want to check it out for the first time, I encourage you to do so here (note, skip straight to page 168).

The Scarlet Ibis is the sort of story that is taught in classrooms to expand a student’s vocabulary, explain historical context, and explore literary devices. However, this story is not the type that we (and I’m speaking generally here) as adults see in a store and pick up for fun. It is truly amazing that there exists so much stimulating literature that we will never engage with. Had it not been for my high school English course, I certainly would not have read the story. I feel this way about a lot of the assigned readings including famous titles like Of Mice and Men and The Great Gatsby, but also lesser known works like Summer of My German Soldier and Cold Sassy Tree. While I begrudgingly picked up these titles as a teenager, I’m glad now that I was compelled to read such interesting literature.

How many of us really read books that challenge us anymore? Whether it is our beliefs, conceptualizations about the world, or tolerance for convoluted sentences and arcane vocabulary, I feel that as adults (or at any age, I guess), we stick to reading what is comfortable. It is as if reading is ‘hard enough’ already. No one has ever said ‘yes, I do indeed have the time to read and furthermore, I choose to only read the most impossible of literature.’ In a world where time is limited, the added challenge of reading a ‘hard’ book without guaranteed enjoyment of the content seems like a risky investment.

As much as I love to read, I find myself guilty of reading what is comfortable. I move from genre to genre with ease, but rarely do I ever pick up something that seems particularly dense, esoteric, or otherwise ‘challenging’ in other ways. Is this a bad thing? Perhaps, but also perhaps not. At the end of the day, reading for us as adults is usually done in the form of entertainment, while reading in schools is an educational training. Regardless, re-reading The Scarlet Ibis reminded me (once again) that a book is more than its cover and that exploring stories that seem foreign to you can yield as much reward as picking up a New York Times bestseller.

Whatever you choose, Dear Reader, when it comes to reading – do enjoy yourself.



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