Posted: 30 Nov 2011 10:52 AM PST
Jesse Kornbluth, a magazine, book, and Web journalist and the host of a spirited, personal cultural tip sheet called Head Butler (and an old friend of Jacques'), has a new enterprise: stripping down style-heavy classics, starting right now with Dickens's A Christmas Carol, to something that today's distracted, attention-deficient kids—and adults!—can and will read. Why? Fondly remembering annual readings of the Christmas classic by his prep school headmaster lo, this half century ago, Kornbluth tried reading it to his daughter:
So Kornbluth decided to cut it in half, by taking out all that stuff that was getting in the way—Dickens's time-slowing use of language, like thick paint and cutting stylus, to convey the kind of atmosphere and wit that we now mostly gulp in a glance from visual media. His rationale:
He adds, in preemptive defense against the lambasting he anticipates:
So what do you think? Is this sad? Is it good? (Of course, it isn't new: abridgements and synopses, from Charles and Mary Lamb's Tales from Shakespeare to Cliff's Notes to Classics Illustrated comics, are as old as literature itself, though they have never outlived the originals. There are even parodies of abridgements [PDF].) Is story, with a dash of character, what literature is really all about? Is language itself as a stand-alone artistic medium and a channel of multisensory transmission on its way out?
Obviously, there's not much use lamenting irresistible change. Personally, though, I still enjoy the pictures language catalyzes in my head at least as much as, and usually more than, the ones a film or TV director has predetermined for me. This just means I am old and from another era—an era that was more continuous with previous eras. Because, among other things, the atmosphere of history, the ghost of society past, that the rhythms and conventions of old-fashioned language convey are one of the losses when you can no longer sit still long enough to read a whole classic. Reading Austen or Thackeray, putting on that language, is like costumed reenactment, as close to time travel as you can get. We are very ahistorical, these days, except in the arcane Lindisfarnes of the academy, where the literary monuments of eras gone by are preserved in a dusty archaeology of the mind. Books on shelves are as dead as brains in jars, with one difference: the experience encoded in them can be brought to life by anyone opening them. If anyone does.
UPDATE: Oh, yes, I meant to reprint Kornbluth's example of an original and streamlined passage of Dickens to help you decide what you think. Dickens, 395 words:
Kornbluth, 107 words:
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