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.