Literary Classics, Stripped Down to Story [UPDATED]

November 30, 2011 at 2:52 pm (By Amba)

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.

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93 Comments

  1. Icepick said,

    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?

    Not as long as famous authors with big egos live. As counter-evidence I give you the Harry Potter books. Each sequel gets longer than the book that precedes it, at least through the first five books. Books six and seven reverse the trend a little bit. In sequence we get

    309
    341
    435
    734
    870
    652
    752

    pages. The books get longer, even though as the series goes on the readers know more and more about the actual world Harry lives in, and shouldn’t need as much description.

    The writer got too big for any editor.

    It’s possible that Rowling simply has more plot to get through, but I haven’t read the books and can’t comment.

    Another example would be George R. R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire series, currently at five books, scheduled for seven, and no one (except perhaps Martin) will be shocked if it goes to eight books. I don’t have those readily available, but they’re definitely getting longer. The series was originally scheduled to be three or four books, (I forget which.)

    I haven’t read the Harry Potter books, but I have read the Martin books. And he spends GOBS of ink describing heraldic symbols, clothing, scenery and especially food. He spends more ink describing various meals than most cookbooks. He spends at least as much time painting word/sensory pictures in book five as he did in book one. In fact, lots of readers complained that there wasn’t enough plot in book five, but everyone bought it anyway. (The sad part is that Martin actually IS a well-known editor in addition to being a writer.)

    So there’s a lot of room out there for people to paint word pictures. Although perhaps spending 50+ pages describing a battle that happened decades before the story in the novel takes place would be a bit much.

    In the other direction you get authors such as Ellroy. For the fourth book in his LA Quartet, he was over the amount of pages the publisher was willing to allot. So he went back and took out most of the verbs. Not even fairly famous authors get to publish what they originally intended, but the Rowlings, the Clanceys, the Kings and (to a lesser extent) the Martins of the world will keep the verbiage alive!

  2. Icepick said,

    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.

    Unless your last name is Frankenstein, and then all bets are off!

  3. amba (Annie Gottlieb) said,

    So why is it that people are willing to read these endless details about imaginary medieval-like kingdoms, but not such details about 18th- or 19th-century society?

    Is it that the further away a historical period is, the more compelling it becomes?

    Or is it that subject matter notwithstanding, the style of writing is simpler and more modern and draws less distracting attention to itself? (Probably this is part of it. Plenty of women’s romances are set in those centuries, in full costume dress. Medieval-battle stories are men’s romances, of a sort. Of course plenty of women are into them too.)

    Or is it that something that’s new and “hot” now is more attractive than something you’re dutifully SUPPOSED to read because it’s a CLASSIC? (This is how school ruins things.) Dickens’s novels, most of them published in serial form, sold like hotcakes. People all but rioted for the next installment. That kind of buzz is contagious.

  4. amba (Annie Gottlieb) said,

    Re: Frankenstein: :D

  5. karen said,

    Not being very literarally(my word)groomed, i did grow up reading and re-reading Louis L’Amour:0)– i have to say that the wording and phrasing of Dickens is slow because it’s unfamiliar to my brain. Well worth the effort, but kids these days are ~allowed~ to quit anything(in my observance)if it gets too hard or boring. We make things so easy for our kids– that they have no natural resistance to these antsy, boring feelings and they skip around to something new and easier.

    I love Harry Potter, ice.All of them& their many pgs and am pleased that my 12 yr old is now into them and really likes them. I’m not afraid of any witchy promptings or questions of that sort– it’s fiction. Broomsticks clean things!! The last movies are great even if they do part w/the written story somewhat.

    PS- I love Barbara Kingsolver. I lovelove Rosamond Plincher:0). And- i confess in small letters– i have been reading (C)hristian(can’t small the ~C~)romances. They are yucky, boring- repetitive and something like eating chocolate chips from the bag intended for the damned cookies i should have made… addictive. Why?? Because they take so little effort other than attention span? idk, honestly!!

  6. mockturtle said,

    Sad. The decline of the human race can be measured by the declining quality of its arts more accurately than by almost any other yardstick.

  7. Icepick said,

    I love Harry Potter, ice.All of them& their many pgs and am pleased that my 12 yr old is now into them and really likes them.

    I’ve never read any of the novels, but my wife has, and she bought them for our (then hypothetical) children to read when they were of an age. (That’s from back in the days when we still bought books.) I’ve got nothing against them myself, I just haven’t read them. Other than re-reading Tolkein I haven’t read much fantasy since I was a teen-ager. Then my wife got me reading Martin’s books. I did recently pick up one of Fritz Leiber’s Fafhrd & Gray Mouser books, though and have just about finished it. Kim getting me hooked on Martin’s books has re-kindled some of the interest, and Leiber’s books are always fun. I’m just about at the part of The Swords of Lankhmar where the terrifying God of Lankhmar are about to be roused from their slumber. BIG FUN!

  8. Icepick said,

    As opposed to the Gods in Lankhmar, of course, who are generally much less scary.

  9. Icepick said,

    As for the language, I’m sure the usage of more contemporary authors is more in keeping with the current culture, but the culture itself is changing. Just reading the passage from A Christmas Carol above one can note several cultural changes. For example, Dickens mentions Saint Dunstan, poulterers and the Lord Mayor’s Mansion – which just feel alien to a modern American. (Poulterer even runs afoul of spell check, by the way.) Now someone reading historic fiction or fantasy wouldn’t blink at any of it, but that leaves one in the ghettos of genre fiction, while Dickens is supposed to be a Literary God. Reclassify a lot of it as Historic Romance and it would still sell like hotcakes. After all, the verisimilitude couldn’t be beat!

    The problem is that Dickens needs to be read with annotations to clue people into the stuff they won’t get. But who wants to read books with footnotes or appendices? I mean, I do but I’m weird. Reading Master and Margarita without footnotes would leave lots of stiff flying right over my head, for example, even if I’d enjoy it otherwise. “Second-grade fresh” would be funny regardless, but the fact that the Soviets HAD a second-grade frsh rating drives the point home with a stab.

    Early in the morning on the fourteenth day of the spring month of Nisan, wearing a white cloak with a blood-red lining, and shuffling with his cavalryman’s gait into the roofed colonnade that connected the two wings of the Palace of Herod the Great, walked the procurator of Judea, Pontius Pilate.

    More than anything in the world the procurator loathed the smell of rose oil, and everything now pointed to a bad day, since that smell had been pursuing him since dawn. It seemed to the procurator that the palms and cypresses in the garden were emitting a rose scent and that even the smell of leather gear and sweat coming from the escort contained a hellish trace of roses….

  10. amba (Annie Gottlieb) said,

    who wants to read books with footnotes or appendices?

    I’ve probably told this story before — blog for seven years and you’ll run out of new stuff to say — but this is how I became able to read Shakespeare in high school. Our copies of the plays had footnotes; there were so many archaic words and phrases that we had to stop a couple of times a line to find out what we were reading. It was a laborious process, a lot like reading in a foreign language you don’t know very well. I think it was sophomore year, so I was probably 14 or 15.

    We were assigned to read Romeo and Juliet, a story of teen-age romance, but way too flowery. Yuck. Next came Julius Caesar, boring, windy and political. It was a slog.

    Then we read Hamlet. I’m slogging along and I come to this scene where Ophelia comes in on Hamlet and find him disheveled and depressed, with “his stockings all down-gyvéd to his ankles.” (I’m quoting this from memory.) She says something to him and then, “He took me by the arm and held me hard.” Oooh!! A visceral, sexual pang as if I was reading a YA romance novel — as if this pale, intense, troubled young man’s hand had shot out of the pages across 4 centuries and grabbed my arm.

    And just like that, I could read Shakespeare.

  11. karen said,

    Love it, amba!!!

    I read Cyrano debergerac(wish i could sp)(don’t know how to use spck, either)– did Shakespheare write that, too? I really liked that.

  12. mockturtle said,

    Yes, we also read Shakespeare in high school, thankfully! And, yes, we had to delve into the culture a bit and parse the language a bit and it didn’t hurt us a bit. I think we read six plays. IMHO, it’s a lot like classical music. Having had the good fortune of exposure to it while young, I’ve loved it all my life. It is ‘classical’ because it is of high and enduring quality, just as is classical literature. It has stood the test of time.

    When one considers five year old children were expected to memorize the Westminster Shorter Catechism, one sees to what extent our expectations have fallen. And we, as a people, will be poorer for it. The attention span of children [and of us all] has been artificially shortened by the rapid-fire media we inundate ourselves with today.

  13. amba (Annie Gottlieb) said,

    Cyrano was written by . . . um . . . (googlegooglegoogle) Edmond Rostand. I liked it, too.

  14. mockturtle said,

    Karen, Cyrano was written by Edmond Rostand. What a clever and delightful play it is, too!

  15. mockturtle said,

    We also read Moliere’s [sorry–can’t do accent marks] Tartuffe in French! Can you imagine that in high school today?

  16. Icepick said,

    When one considers five year old children were expected to memorize the Westminster Shorter Catechism, one sees to what extent our expectations have fallen.

    You really think all the street urchins destined for factories at age eight memorized all that? Doubtful. Some standards have fallen, some have improved.

    And while modern media has shortened attention spans, it has also made a flood of stuff available to anyone with phone service. Seriously, what’s the likelihood of me getting to the Louvre? It might not be as good as being there, but this is more than most people could expect.

    Recently I was reading up on the French Revolution, back before I got distracted by the vulgar charms of Leiber’s Nehwon. One of the bourgesois (sp?) leaders of the revolution (I believe it was Danton) was noted for his library.It measured around 1400 volumes. My wife and I own over 1800, perhaps 1900 given a recent set of additions. No doubt his had an overall greater quality, but I’m also certain that I own a helluva lot more on mathematics than he did, (a great deal of the mathematics in my books hadn’t been created yet) and I know for a fact that he didn’t own a damned thing on quantum mechanics. In my collection isn’t just a set of books on natural history, but enough volumes over enough time to show how the evolution in thought on that subject has progressed. My wife’s books probably contain more on medieval medicine than he had, and I’ve certainly got a lot more on the particulars of how to conduct germ warfare. (Nothing like finding old war manuals in used book sales.)

    The point is, that worthy (whoever it was) had a massive collection at that time, and i’ve easily dwarfed it without even making an effort. He was one of the richest people in France, and I acquired a huge chunk of my collection while just a poor college student.

    Let’s not think that we live in an Age of Tin.

  17. Icepick said,

    Karen, I use spell check when I compose in MS Word. Otherwise I don’t use it.

  18. mockturtle said,

    You really think all the street urchins destined for factories at age eight memorized all that? Doubtful. Some standards have fallen, some have improved. The era to which I referred preceded the Industrial Revolution by over a century and a half. But perhaps you think that a low common denominator is best because it is common?

  19. lh said,

    It strikes me as yet one more effort to pull something (everything) to whatever the current, comfortable, so-called “norm” is. Once again, it’s all about “or,” not “and”–and even more: against “and.” Aggressively.

    I reject it.

  20. lh said,

    Also, I suspect that Kornbluth’s daughter is going to grow up to be a boring sort, with his full enabling, alas. (One of the things I’ve learned in life: Those who are quickest to pronounce things, especially quickly, as boring tend to be the most boring of people, not mention the most boorish.) Why he’d encourage that sort of thing, I can’t fathom.

    I can be a crank, too.

  21. lh said,

    Annie, by way of quickie explanation, this sort of thing drives me crazy. I mean, sweet C! If your kid is into a different sort of lit, or writing (or “& etc.) and you’re all into just going with that, then by all means–and by God!–go with it. Go find those different sorts. They are out there, and they are incredibly easy to find (Kornbluth surely knows that. Well, doesn’t he?). So go there. Don’t rewrite one thing into something else just to please a kid who hasn’t yet experienced the background or had the background of experience to to appreciate a broad (much less adult) range of creativity and realities. In my view, it’s a sick, slack, silly and slick thing to rewrite Dickens to make Dickens more palatable to a kid (to be clear: it’d be even worse to do so for an adult). Kornbluth ought choose something or someone else to present to his kid, more in keeping with her interest and various other “et ceteras.” Maybe some day she’ll bother with Dickens or maybe she never will. That will be that, either way: Let go thinking it can be otherwise.

    No need for dishonest distortion, disrespectful destruction, dastardly deconstruction along the way… .

  22. amba (Annie Gottlieb) said,

    Kornbluth is a journalist for the likes of Vanity Fair — not exactly a trend-bucking profession.

  23. lh said,

    Perhaps Kornbluth could go up on eBay and find vintage copies of CliffsNotes. This would save him time.

  24. amba (Annie Gottlieb) said,

    If he thinks reading the abridged Dickens might lead one day to reading the actual Dickens — unlikely. But I don’t think he thinks that at all. What he thinks is that the message (story) is separable from the medium, and that story is the only meaningful takeaway.

    I bet there is a way to read the original Christmas Carol to a kid that would encourage the kid to discover what great vivid fun can be had with language.

    And, Icepick, anyone who knows what poultry is can figure out “poulterer.”

  25. mockturtle said,

    But…but…it’s not about the story. It’s about the medium. It’s about the manner of the storytelling. After all, few of Shakespeare’s dramas originated with his plays.

  26. Icepick said,

    But perhaps you think that a low common denominator is best because it is common?

    Funny. Do you really think that everyone, and I mean everyone, in that era you mentioned memorized the document you refer to? or was it just a certain class of people in a certain segment of the population? That assumes a level of brilliance not in evidence for that era – or any other.

  27. lh said,

    I’m well aware of Kornbluth’s body of work. Perhaps, therefore–(now that I think about it)–I should not have been surprised by this. Yet I was.

    What he thinks is that the message (story) is separable from the medium, and that story is the only meaningful takeaway.

    Fine. (I call bullshit, on the one hand; on the other hand, let’s suppose that’s so, for the sake of the conversation.) Then just present the message (story). Or find an author who presents the message (story) in a more stylistically comfy (modern, stripped down) fashion, or at least who uses modern (only what we hear and use everyday, and definitely not what we don’t hear and don’t use everyday) language. They are out there, in abundance. Why undertake, much less self-laud, the effort to re-make Dickens to be other than Dickens? Putting aside the self-indulgence and dishonesty, what about the laziness?

  28. mockturtle said,

    or was it just a certain class of people in a certain segment of the population?
    And if it was? The expectation was there. And so was the ability. And how do we know the ability wasn’t there for those in other classes as well, as it was never tested? Low expectation results in….well, in what we have today.

  29. Icepick said,

    And, Icepick, anyone who knows what poultry is can figure out “poulterer.”

    i’d take that bet, if I had a dollar to spare. The point is that it is just not part of the common cultural landscape of this era. hell, butcher shops are uncommon these days, so how many poulterers are out there? It’s just a touch alien. If doesn’t bother me, I have lived parts of my life in far stranger realms, but I’m not everyone.

    There’s a cultural background that’s just assumed by a writer, rightly or wrongly, and that cannot always translate to other eras. How well does comedy translate over time? Who’s going to get jokes about Nixon in another 30 years?

    So I named one of the recent kittens Rorschach. It’s a two-part name. Beyond the ink-blot-like coat, she was also the runt of the litter. Her name is one part psychologist, one part comic book character. And even though the comic book was recently turned into a movie, the kids in the neighborhood still have no idea who either Rorschach is when I tell them the name of the kitten. It’s not part of their culture. (And I don’t think any of them has know what a kumquat is, when I tell them the name of one of the others.)

    The point is that it will be easier to suck such people into a completely made-up cultural millieu that is carefully explained to them than one that is assumed by the writer but isn’t completely explained. Dickens will lose to Rowling, and eventually Rowlinig will lose to someone else.

  30. Icepick said,

    Low expectations can be a self-fulfilling prophecy – but sometimes they’re justified. Half the population is at or below average. Not everyone has what it takes to learn differential calculus, and cerainly not integral calculus. And not everyone is going to be able to read Shakespeare, which is written in a language that is not exactly our own. Shakespeare is a hard read for most of us. My wife tells me it’s easy for her, but she comes to it having studied Chaucer and other older forms of the English language – Willie is a step down in difficulty for her. It’s a step up for me, and I have to work at it when I feel up to it. That’s not very often unless I find a compelling production I can watch – and then I follow along.

  31. lh said,

    “If the law supposes that,” said Mr. Bumble,… “the law is a ass—a idiot. If that’s the eye of the law, the law is a bachelor; and the worst I wish the law is that his eye may be opened by experience—by experience.”

    Heh. One of the great Dickens quotes, referring to, among other things, both law and experience. I submit that without its context–specifically including how Dickens wrote–it would not have withstood the test of time.

    ; )

  32. lh said,

    Dearest ‘pick, not everyone is going to understand economics,or spreadsheets, or actuarial concepts and so forth, either. This reality does not strike me as a call to, you know, just redo stuff for the sake of palatability. I’d submit that this has broader implications (perhaps even verging on principle). : )

  33. amba (Annie Gottlieb) said,

    There has been a Dickens exhibit (letters — original illustrations — handwritten manuscripts!!) at the Morgan Library, and I got to go with a treasured old friend who is a nonstuffy, nontrendy Dickens scholar and a fine writer herself. What a treat!!

  34. Icepick said,

    I’m not aware that at any point I’ve advocated redoing Dickens. My point is that he’s just not going to translate to most readers THESE DAYS as he did in his own times. The world keeps changing, and the amount of knowledge AND culture keeps expanding. Expecting everyone to get the culture from back then as well as all the culture of Shakespeare’s time, the culture of Lao Tzu’s time, the culture of Kublai khan’s time, the culture of John Steinbeck’s time, the culture of Victor Hugo’s time, et cetera, ad nauseum. There’s a whole lot more to KNOW now. Not only did Shakespeare not have to react to, say, the works of Tolstoy, he predates Bach by about 100 years, There’s just too much cultural knowledge to know now, and stuff from before the invention of radio is going to be very alien to most people in the world now.

    Forget that. I watched an episode of Maude recently – I couldn’t believe how badly it has aged. Some shows hold up, some don’t. Give it time and almost everything that isn’t genre fiction will not come off very well. Remember when The Mary Tyler Moore show was going to be the biggest thing to hit syndication since I Love Lucy? Didn’t happen. Shows like Wings did better in syndication. Things date themselves veryquickly in this era.

    Things change with great speed these days. The world wide web is only 20 years old! Ten years ago blogs were brand new. Portable phones have actually been around for a while, but their popularity has really taken off in the last 15 years. The iPhone is less than five years old! All of these things are producing torrents of information, and culture, for weal and for woe, is swept up in that too. I just can’t get upset that some journos kid (or anyone else’s) isn’t into the same stuff I’m into, or that some journo is doing a bad job of attempting to update an old standard.

  35. lh said,

    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.

    Interesting, isn’t it, that as Kornbluth buries Dickens (that ancient sonuvabitch), he resurrects argot of old Harlequin romances. Hmmm.

    OK, so now I’m finding the amusement in all of this. Because, when one thinks of it, it’s pretty damn funny, isn’t it?

  36. Icepick said,

    Dearest ‘pick, not everyone is going to understand economics,or spreadsheets, or actuarial concepts and so forth, either. This reality does not strike me as a call to, you know, just redo stuff for the sake of palatability.

    I hate to tell you this, or rather remind you of it, but economics, spreadsheets, actuarial concepts get dumbed down for palatability all the time. And usually with the intent of misrepresenting what the actual truth is.

    Besides, Dickens has been redone lots of times. how many movies have been done? Scrooge McDuck, anyone? I didn’t read abbridged versions of a Christmas Carol in high school, but we certainly got the short versions of A Tale of Two Cities and Great Expectations. There was only one other student who MIGHT have red the unabbridged versions in my class, and we were the so-called elite of the school. (And I know for a fact that I was the only person to read all of Pearl Buck’s novels about Wang Lung.)

    Besides which, redoing a story is as old as the ancient Greeks – all the great dramatists (and no doubt a lot of mediocre ones whose works haven’t survived) did all the same stories – how a story was told mattered. Still does. This guy’s works just aren’t going to go anywhere because they’re just not that good. That’s fine. Someone else might redo them and come up with something better. A smart writer would take the basic story and just redo almost all of it themselves – and then sell it to Hollywood to be butchered into a movie starring Mike Meyers and Adam Sandler. Such are the vagaries of war and art.

  37. Icepick said,

    Excuse me, I mean the novels about Wang Lung’s family, as he dies early in Sons, IIRC. Been ages since I read them, since 1984 in fact.

  38. lh said,

    My point is that he’s just not going to translate to most readers THESE DAYS as he did in his own times.

    Well, of course not. Who does? (Or, for that matter, what does?)

  39. LouiseM said,

    My grandfather, with an eight grade education, memorized the entire book of Romans from the King James Holy Bible. 16 Chapters. No other books, no special savant ability, but for some reason he wanted to do so and did.

    When our eldest was eight, I started reading him an abridged version of Jungle Book but soon moved on to the unabridged version for more stories. We had an L shaped couch and he and I would sit together on one side of the couch while his 3 year old brother would walk around on the other side puttering and playing pretend games in seeming oblivion. The younger one did not appear to be listening or caring, but something about the cadence, situation and story must have appealed to him, because the unabridged Jungle Book became and remains one of his favorites. Not so for the one who sat by my side.

    What humans are capable of doing and what they are interested in doing are two different stories.

  40. amba (Annie Gottlieb) said,

    it’s pretty damn funny, isn’t it?

    Yes, and it’s also ungrammatical: “piercing, searching, brutally cold” — two adjectives and an adverb??

  41. mockturtle said,

    the amount of knowledge AND culture keeps expanding

    Information is not knowledge. And culture can be anything.

  42. amba (Annie Gottlieb) said,

    It’s true though that more than ever (very much including high culture) is available and accessible. Part of the reason our attention capacity is so burdened and strained and strewn is that there is SO MUCH we want to see, do, learn, read. We each need several simultaneous lifetimes. We are constantly being called away from whatever we are trying to focus on by all the other temptations, including the temptation to produce thoughts and not just consume them (in my experience, this latter becomes more of a problem as you get older and feel the urge to deliver yourself of the fruits of a lifetime of taking in and processing both culture and experience).

  43. Tom Strong said,

    For what it’s worth, I think Kornbluth’s expurgated version is fairly well written, and certainly more tightly edited than Dickens’. The problem is he feels bound to recreating Dickens’ imagery in a kind of poor homage to the original. I think it would be better if he simply left that behind and retold the story using his own words.

  44. mockturtle said,

    Yes, I find myself more often taking the path of least resistance. My brain has become lazy. But I am more concerned about today’s children and how they are learning [or not]. Certainly there is no dearth of information but how much real knowledge is being imparted? And are their brains being exercised or merely spoon fed?

  45. kngfish said,

    When I would read Shakespeare I would immediately leap to the footnotes or annotations and then back….Looking at it now it seems more like treating the book as a text than as a story, almost Rabbinical in method… I would make the story in my mind by saying the words aloud. Saying the words and not merely reading them somehow made it more “alive”.

  46. mockturtle said,

    Yes, and Shakespeare is better seen and heard than read. But the appreciation is greater if the groundwork has been laid beforehand.

  47. kngfish said,

    Totally OT for Copyedit Amba….. S’wonderful, S’marvelous that you should care for me… Idly thinking, is that a “double contraction”? Not “It’s wonderful” or “It is wonderful”, but even more compressed! Almost Shakespearean! There must be a term for this, no?

  48. kngfish said,

    mockturtle, I appreciate what your saying…but I don’t mean seeing and hearing it as an audience member, but saying it yourself! Isn’t that something we also underrate?

  49. karen said,

    “And, Icepick, anyone who knows what poultry is can figure out “poulterer.””

    I had wanted to comment last night– it was funny when ice said that this word ran *afoul on his spellcheck:0).

    I could be a poulterer. I had an older lady teach me– not a pleasant procedure, either. Fowl stink. They are nasty&dirty, but so much fun to watch. When they run, i picture little arms up where their breasts are- because they look so odd w/out arms. Farmers like us are a dying breed. I call those of us left in VT ~the indigenous few~; i like that:0).

    What is the name of the Bronte book about the Governess and the wealthy gentleman w/the crazy wife locked in the upper rooms? I read that about 5 times, but the name!!! I can’t remember it- last night nor today.

    I saw the movie- ~The Wide Sargasso Sea~, i mentioned that before@ one time. It changes my feelings, my interpretation of the book. It was a good film and i was the only one in my Women’s Lit class to take the POV that this mr. what’s-his-name was a selfish bastard to bring his 1st wife back to England w/him and lock her up. She was property to him and she was something he could no longer ~own~ w/his original love or purpose, so he brought her home so no one else could ~own~ her– not even herself.

    “What humans are capable of doing and what they are interested in doing are two different stories.”

    Yup, and that is what is so crazy about us all:0).

  50. Icepick said,

    it was funny when ice said that this word ran *afoul on his spellcheck:0).

    That didn’t even occur to me.

  51. wj said,

    I always found that the easiest way to ease into Shakespeare was to see (and, more to the point, hear) the plays first. The spoken words aren’t all that far in pronunciation from modern English. (In particular American English; somewhat further from modern British English!) There are still a few words that you aren’t familiar with, but most of those can be figured out from context.

    And, once you have heard a play, reading it is far easier. After all, you have heard what the words are, so all you have to worry about is correlating the novel (to you) spellings.

    I have to wonder if kids who do lots of texting might not have an easier time dealing with peculiar spellings than we did. After all, most text messages aren’t exactly run thru a spellchecker, are they?

  52. amba (Annie Gottlieb) said,

    S’wonderful, S’marvelous Ah, the great poets of Tin Pan Alley! And I’m not being sarcastic — they are!

  53. karen said,

    What texts gain in oddness of spelling, they lack in warmth and nuance of tone. That would not help, IMhumbleO- when it comes to Shakespeare. Cadence is the word i mean.

    I suppose the same could be said of blog comments, but i never feel that way.

    I love ee cummings. I love reading his poems. I have no trouble w/them, for some reason.

  54. mockturtle said,

    mockturtle, I appreciate what your saying…but I don’t mean seeing and hearing it as an audience member, but saying it yourself! Isn’t that something we also underrate?
    Kingfish, absolutely! Reading it aloud unleashes the brilliance of his craft. When we were young, my sister and I would read parts of Shakespearean plays together [she was always Romeo and I, Juliet]. We both still remember an amazing number of lines from that play as well as from Julius Caesar–my personal favorite, although I consider Hamlet by far his best.

    It is wonderful, I will admit, that technology allows me to watch Richard III and Henry V and several other plays from my own DVDs whenever I choose. :-)

    When I hear, “The tiger now hath seized the gentle hind” [Richard III] it gives me chills. If the words were changed, the brilliance would be lost.

  55. amba (Annie Gottlieb) said,

    What is the name of the Bronte book about the Governess and the wealthy gentleman w/the crazy wife locked in the upper rooms?

    Jane Eyre! Try to see the old movie with Orson Welles and Joan Fontaine.

  56. kngfish said,

    No really! Isn’t S’wonderful an unusual construction?

  57. karen said,

    OK- i can now bang my head on this desk. Duh.

    Althouse had a cool video of a beautiful, talented girl singing Shakespeare in a her own composition. I actually couldn’t get her cadence down and didn’t understand it, but if i listened to it again, i might.

  58. mockturtle said,

    The Brontes’ books are so much darker than the movies made from them. None of the films of Wuthering Heights, to my knowledge, include Heathcliffe’s hanging Catherine’s little dog, for example.

    Having been on the Yorkshire moors a couple of times [my husband is from the same area] I could understand the darkness.

  59. kngfish said,

    dog hanging…. not great cinema! I get the cutting of this….

  60. amba (Annie Gottlieb) said,

    WJ, yes, with the proviso that you need to see a really good performance of Shakespeare. Making it sound like natural, comprehensible speech at the same time as it is grand poetry is an amazing art. Not all productions succeed.

    I once saw a clip of Orson Welles doing Shylock with a Yiddish accent. Unfortunately, it’s not on YouTube. It was amazing.

  61. amba (Annie Gottlieb) said,

    Among my favorite lines is Cleopatra’s eulogy for Antony:

    His delights were dolphin-like; they showed
    His back above the element he lived in.

  62. mockturtle said,

    dog hanging…. not great cinema! I get the cutting of this….

    Of course, but the novel clearly portrayed both Heathcliff and Catherine as dark-spirited and sociopathic. Some of the film versions made Heathcliff appear a hero and Catherine an engaging but misunderstood country lass. My favorite version [though not faithful to the novel] was the Timothy Dalton/Anna Calder-Marshall film from 1970. It seemed to capture well the violent passion of the lovers as well as the mood of the setting.

  63. karen said,

    Jane Eyre is the only Bronte book i’ve read.

    I’ve heard such good things about Wuthering Heights, but it seemed(ok- here it comes)… really, really long to get through:0).

  64. Icepick said,

    but it seemed(ok- here it comes)… really, really long to get through

    Yes, and there’s all that damned semaphor…..

  65. karen said,

    2 clues, ice?

    In my neck of the woods, i’m ~2-clues-karen~ because i always need a joke spelled out. Not always, and it’s also a lowered expectation of me, but in this instance? What do flags and signals have to do w/Wurthering Heights?

    ps- i found semaphore snuggling between “semantics” and “semasiology”(whatever that means). Heh- that’s a joke:0).

  66. amba (Annie Gottlieb) said,

    Karen, I’m enjoying your comments so much.

  67. mockturtle said,

    Me, too! And I didn’t get the semaphor remark, either. Clue us in, Ice! ;-)

  68. karen said,

    Amba- i always feel like i’m a bore– how would this Kornbluth man edit me?? It’s just that i have so much happening around me w/all our animals and indoors/outdoors and i want to share w/you all:0).

    Share: we now have 3 red&white little heifers. The oldest is Shania and i gave her a trim yesterday(w/big-ass clippers)because she was a fuzzball and i thought she’d look more bovine w/less hair. I was right. I actually clipped all the 5 in the doorway– i think they feel better for it. Of course, they don’t care for it much at 1st– lots of trying to get away. Until they realize that no harm comes to them and they enjoy the feeling of the clippers.

    Venus is out of Virgina and Ramble out of Rumble(she was born in a thunderstorm)- her mom was Rain, from Rainbow. Rainbow from Ramona(i think)- and Ramona from Rocket who was from Regis? An all-female lineage. The names are the same idea, too. The babies’ stem from the 1st letter of the Moms’.

  69. amba (Annie Gottlieb) said,

    Poetry!

  70. karen said,

    Weird, the times of posting are off by an hour, eh?
    It’s 7:21 and the post i just did says 8:20.

    Is it Spring already?!!!

  71. karen said,

    You know, Poetry would be a good name for a calf!!

  72. mockturtle said,

    Karen, I’ll bet they are just darling! Love their names–Ramble out of Rumble! When I was a kid visiting my grandparents’ ranch in CO, I got to feed some of the calves with those buckets with a nipple on the side. I guess it was part of the weaning process. Do you still use those? They only had a dozen milk cows [my grandmother’s hobby, as Grandpa called them–he didn’t like them at all] but mostly beef cattle. I can still smell that wonderful cow smell in my mind sometimes–a warm milk and hay kind of smell. Cows are special! Could you post a picture of your new arrivals? :-)

  73. kngfish said,

    They are all Icelandic Cows!

  74. Icepick said,

    The semaphor thing is a Monty Python reference. No clues would help, you’d either get it or you wouldn’t.

    The Semaphore Version of Wuthering Heights

    Skip to 1:03 for that bit. I particularly love Carol Cleveland’s acting as Catherine – she really gets a lot of emotion across with those flags!

  75. karen said,

    I don’t have a camera, mockT. My daughter does and she’s coming home on Saturday. I will remind her to bring it and then send the pics to amba. I want to get a good one of our hellcat, Rosie, to show to amba.

    I call Ramble, Ramblin’ Rose, since she is red. She is the cutest.

    We have round bales for feed, that’s not anywhere near as sweet smelling as the hay you are thinking of. In the hay barn it smells sweet. It’s more like puke in the milking barn– i say that because the fermented smell is so harsh&pickley. I work in there for about two hours on each end of the day and i know the smell clings- esp in my hair, which is longish. I wear a touke(sp)means a hat- mine is an orange hunter’s knit hat:0). I guess it’s a signature of mine– it’s funny, too. I’m definitely not trendy. It’s easier to find if i misplace it.

    They do still have those pails around, but we just use a big baby bottle and do that for about 3to4 days and then put them on a pail. Our calves live in hutches w/wire fences . There’s probably a link somewhere to what i mean. They stay outside and they live in these little, domed, igloo-looking plastic houses, 1 per hutch. They suck e/other if together and that can ruin a heifer by causing blind quarters– trust me, amba knows what a 3-titter is:0).

  76. mockturtle said,

    The semaphor thing is a Monty Python reference. No clues would help, you’d either get it or you wouldn’t.

    The Semaphore Version of Wuthering Heights

    Skip to 1:03 for that bit. I particularly love Carol Cleveland’s acting as Catherine – she really gets a lot of emotion across with those flags!

    LOL! Love it, Ice! Can’t believe I missed that one. We watched M.P. for years. You’re right–her performance is certainly better than, say, Merle Oberon’s.

  77. kngfish said,

    Cliff Notes of the Cliff Notes of The Old Testament: “God creates Man and everything Man does makes God angry.”

  78. karen said,

    “The semaphor thing is a Monty Python reference. No clues would help, you’d either get it or you wouldn’t.”

    You are so right about that, ice. And, having watched it… i still wonder if i get it yet:0).

    I’m more of a Benny hill or Mr Bean type of gal when it comes to comedy. I think it all boils down to exposure– must be due to my warm, orange touke.

  79. karen said,

    Funny, Ron. I delayed my laugh– and now it’s even funnier.

  80. mockturtle said,

    Karen, I know that sour smell–the smell of ‘ensilage’, as Grandma called it. The stuff we’d pull out of the silo and put in the feeding troughs, and pour grain on top of, before bringing them into the barn to milk. I guess it was some kind of fermented chopped up corn husks? I dunno!

  81. karen said,

    We call it silage, but here we round bale in big marshmallow style bales and wrap w/white plastic- so they look like marshmallows. The feed- hay- is long-stemmed as opposed to being chopped. Yet, still fermented. Same as w/bags– long(150-200feet) plastic bags of feed. The plastic is all waste.

    We looked into a silo– we’d like one. 75grand for one, new. We could buy a used one, deconstruct and reconstruct it– after moving it. I don’t know the cost of that. We did that on my farm- we had one new and one used silo. Good feed.

    Corn can be silage, too.

  82. amba (Annie Gottlieb) said,

    My friend Rosemarie Bodenheimer who wrote the book about Dickens responded to this post with an e-mail she has given me the OK to quote:

    Re-reading that passage from CC makes me want to jump right in and enthuse about Dickens’s style. So many imaginative leaps, so much animation of things that would otherwise be mere objects, every sentence bringing a different sector of London society into instantaneous life. It’s brilliant. But I wouldn’t have known that as a child. What I loved were the opening sentences, dark and funny. “Marley was dead. There was no doubt whatsoever about that. . .. Marley was as dead as a door nail. (That’s my memory, not Dickens). Point is, there’s something for every age, and parents can skip passages when they read aloud without resorting to the dead sentences of some Kornbluth or other.

    There you go, it’s infectious.

  83. Icepick said,

    karen, I’ve certainly got no problem with Benny Hill! Personally I don’t see all that much difference from Benny Hill to Monty Python. The Pythons were probably better educated (five of the six of them were Oxbridgers, don’t know about Benny without looking it up), and they definitely used some drier stuff, but so what. Both drew heavily from baudy British music hall comedy. And that little old guy on Benny Hill, Jackie Wright, was hysterical.

  84. Icepick said,

    BTW, Rorschach continues to improve. She’s wrestles with her litter mates again. All and all she’s been most imprressive.

  85. amba (Annie Gottlieb) said,

    Awesome!! She’s right up there with a cat we had in J’s old apartment that survived a holocaust of bad viruses (FIV and feline leukemia) and lived to be 22. I always said science should study her. Rorschach, too. What a will to live!

  86. lh said,

    2 clues, ice?

    Et tu, Brute?

    (Methinks that Karen underestimates herself–

    and also others.)

  87. lh said,

    And that she knows it, specifically with regard to the former. : )

  88. lh said,

  89. karen said,

    :0)- i sometimes think that people expect things of me and i play along– i’m the tail end of a lot of jokes. I don’t usually mind.

    Since our life was turned upside-down w/my in-Laws, i’ve been very uncertain about who i am or how i’m seen since now i never know what others have been told about me, all untrue if by my in-Laws account. I’ve never been sensitive to what others have heard of me, you know small towns, until this because i don’t care if people know things if it’s true.

  90. karen said,

    Amba, does the kitten now have a name?

  91. amba12 said,

    Yes, the one I’m keeping is Flighty.

  92. Dave Schuler (@tsidjs) said,

    Three drive-by comments. First, Mr. Kornbluth is not the first to take on this task. Thomas Bowdler re-wrote the works of Shakespeare to make them more attunded to 18th-19th century sensibilities. Hence, bowdlerization. Hey! Let’s give Hamlet a happy ending.

    Second, Shakespeare wasn’t meant to be read. It was intended to be seen or performed. I was fortunate that my introduction to Shakespeare was performing in them (Julius Caesar, Othello, Midsummer Nights Dream, Twelfth Night, Macbeth, Hamlet, Alls Well That Ends Well, Comedy of Errors).

    Third, there’s something that Boz knew and the Disney Corp. knows that Mr. Kornbluth, apparently, does not: waiting makes the experience more intense. Dickens’s timing is not extraneous or an encumbrance; it’s an inherent part of the work. Well, that and he got paid by the word.

  93. The Classics, Edited said,

    […] an extensive discussion going on at Amba’s place about a project that’s been undertaken by a friend of hers: Jesse Kornbluth, a magazine, […]

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