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:
“This is boring,” she said, after just five minutes.
She was right.
Books change over time, and over 170 years, “A Christmas Carol” has changed more than most. The story is a slow starter. The language is clotted. There’s a lot of extraneous description.
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:
[I]n 1843, when Dickens wrote “A Christmas Carol,” photography was an infant, movies were beyond a dream. It was Dickens’ task to create pictures in words so his readers could re-create them in their minds. That’s no longer necessary. We’ve all seen pictures of London — even the London of the mid-nineteenth century.
We still value style, but we value story more. . . .
Cynthia Crossen — the ombudsman of books for the Wall Street Journal — recently wrote: “As much as I love Trollope, Dickens and Eliot, they do try my patience.”
Cressida Cowell, the author of “How To Train Your Dragon,” goes further:
Attention spans are changing. It’s very noticeable. I am very aware that the kind of books I read in my childhood kids now won’t be able to read.
I was reading Kipling and PG Wodehouse and Shakespeare at the age of 11. The kind of description and detail I read I would not put in my books.
I don’t know how much you can fight that because you want children to read….
He adds, in preemptive defense against the lambasting he anticipates:
The old ways die slowly. Over-written, under-edited prose makes us irritable, and yet we still tend to defend it — as if a literary text comes to us with the unchanging authority of the tablets Moses brought down from the mount.
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:
Meanwhile the fog and darkness thickened so, that people ran about with flaring links, proffering their services to go before horses in carriages, and conduct them on their way. The ancient tower of a church, whose gruff old bell was always peeping slyly down at Scrooge out of a Gothic window in the wall, became invisible, and struck the hours and quarters in the clouds, with tremulous vibrations afterwards as if its teeth were chattering in its frozen head up there. The cold became intense. In the main street at the corner of the court, some labourers were repairing the gas-pipes, and had lighted a great fire in a brazier, round which a party of ragged men and boys were gathered: warming their hands and winking their eyes before the blaze in rapture. The water-plug being left in solitude, its overflowing sullenly congealed, and turned to misanthropic ice. The brightness of the shops where holly sprigs and berries crackled in the lamp heat of the windows, made pale faces ruddy as they passed. Poulterers’ and grocers’ trades became a splendid joke; a glorious pageant, with which it was next to impossible to believe that such dull principles as bargain and sale had anything to do. The Lord Mayor, in the stronghold of the mighty Mansion House, gave orders to his fifty cooks and butlers to keep Christmas as a Lord Mayor’s household should; and even the little tailor, whom he had fined five shillings on the previous Monday for being drunk and bloodthirsty in the streets, stirred up to-morrow’s pudding in his garret, while his lean wife and the baby sallied out to buy the beef.
Foggier yet, and colder! Piercing, searching, biting cold. If the good Saint Dunstan had but nipped the Evil Spirit’s nose with a touch of such weather as that, instead of using his familiar weapons, then indeed he would have roared to lusty purpose. The owner of one scant young nose, gnawed and mumbled by the hungry cold as bones are gnawed by dogs, stooped down at Scrooge’s keyhole to regale him with a Christmas carol: but at the first sound of —
“God bless you, merry gentleman! May nothing you dismay!”
Scrooge seized the ruler with such energy of action, that the singer fled in terror, leaving the keyhole to the fog and even more congenial frost.
Kornbluth, 107 words:
Meanwhile the fog and darkness thickened. The ancient tower of a church became invisible; it struck the hours and quarters in the clouds. The cold became intense. In the main street, the brightness of the shops made pale faces glow as they passed. Butcher shops became a splendid joke: a glorious pageant of pheasant and duck and goose, so it was next to impossible to believe that anyone anywhere had to think about such dull realities as bargains and sales. And then it turned foggier yet, and colder.
It was piercing, searching, brutally cold when Scrooge rose from his desk to close the office for the day.
When Rainy fully realized he had a lapmate, he slunk away. But this is only Day 2.
Now the white kitten is on one side of me and Buzzy is on the other, bitching and grumbling, but also purring. The black kitten is near my feet longing to get up too, but wary of Buzzy, who seems to be guarding or claiming me. I had thought that even after a six-day absence, Buzzy and Rainy might give me the deep freeze for foisting the kittens on them; instead, they’ve gone from bored, taking-for-granted, familiarity-breeds-contempt to clingy and possessive. (I’m still planning to give the black kitten away if a good enough home turns up.)
Names: I woke up this morning thinking the white one should be named “Ragout” (pronounced “Ragu”), but once fully awake that did not seem right at all, especially given that her former owner is Korean.
UPDATE: Shhhhh . . .
A clear view of good young whatsername:
Jacques: 2/21/1928 — 11/19/2010
While I sat
by your shell on a dwindling planet
did you dive through the stars?
Trying to decide whether to apply for a “job job” I am fully qualified for, copyediting kids’ books. Pros: unprecedented financial security, IF I got it. Cons: probability of being rejected for my age, but if not: confinement to an office for first time in 40 years; loss of short-lived freedom to travel and write; giving up on promising specialty as freelance science copy editor before giving it a full-fledged shot. Opinions?
UPDATE: All of the input was very helpful in thinking this through, and very much appreciated.
I have decided that I prefer to develop the freelance science editing business (a key factor is that thanks to J and Screen Actors Guild I do not need health benefits), but that I will respond to Random House’s job ad with an offer of freelance copyediting of kids’ science books.
As the first anniversary of J’s death comes around (it’s Saturday, and I will, coincidentally or not, be back visiting Chapel Hill), “Journey to Healing”, the article I wrote about him for O, the Oprah Magazine—the one that hit the newsstands on September 10, 2001—has been published online in the archives of Oprah’s website, where it will be available and linkable from now on. One curious thing about this article is that I didn’t realize then that he was already showing the early signs of dementia. I thought it was just post-traumatic stress—and certainly it was that, too.
The last time I bought a new (or used) car was December, 1996. As saving for old age is no longer a necessity, I threw caution to the wind and ordered this Mini Cooper S. A friend insisted on naming it – at first we chose “Black Jack” because of the decal I ordered to disguise the sunroof, but we figured that was already a popular name, so we went with “Just Jack.”
Jack is actually dark grey-green but need the right light to show it off. The likely ultimate owner of this car was also intimately involved in selecting the various options.
It’s a “happy car” and I can’t help smiling every time I see it.
For the past six years, I’ve planted impatiens underneath the entry archway to my house. Most of the time, they don’t turn out as well as could be. They sure made up for it this year, though!
Operating in the no-man’s-land between languages can challenge you to get inventive. I’ve thus (knowing mostly just karate words in Japanese) had some of my most delicious conversations with English-impaired Japanese friends, and I had one tonight. Trying to explain to a brilliant, gentle philosopher and his (ditto) poet wife the inexaggerable (?) importance of one writer for English, I found myself saying (with lots of help from my hands): You know when you’re making a pot you put it on a wheel, you make it round, and then you put it in the fire and it gets hard? It was the same with English, and the fire was Shakespeare.
Imagine two cats curled up near the warmth of that blazing fireplace.
Now imagine three.
* * *
I walked into the laundromat and one of the Mexican guys who works there started meowing loudly.
As I walked towards the back to get quarters for the machines, he said to me, “You want cat? Free for you!”
The laundromat owner, who is Chinese or Korean (the same guy who owned the place when I left more than five years ago—greeted me in May as if no time had passed), confirmed that he has an employee who is probably allergic and a wife who is maybe not too crazy about taking care of two rambunctious kittens at home. A month ago already I had fallen in love with the white one with the Ash Wednesday smudge, when she was tiny, strutting across the counter looking wildly around for comical protrusions of the world that could be played with, pausing to rub against my arm as if we were old best buds. I had gotten as far as telling the laundromat owner, “If you decide you don’t want that cat, talk to me!”
Now the kittens have come home to roost. (I can really only take one. The other, whom I haven’t met close up, is black with white trim. Anyone?)
I told him I’m going away next week (to Chapel Hill) and wouldn’t be back till the 21st. Could he keep the cat till then? Sure.
Then? I’ll have to take her straight to the vet, at flamboyant expense, to get deflea’d, wormed, and checked out for nasty viruses before I combine her with my cats. I’ll need to find someplace for her to stay the night until she’s cleared. I’ll need to face the higher tower of cat carriers and the tonally enriched symphony of wretched yowls on my forthcoming drive down to Florida. Oy vey. What am I getting myself into?
Life. Life is trouble.