Friday, April 27, 2007

High-Speed Classics

I'm fairly well-read, but there certainly are some large gaps in my knowledge of classic literature. I have never, for instance read anything by William Faulkner. As an English major, this is just no good.

I thought of Faulkner because his name came up in Garrison Keillor's Writer's Almanac, a daily e-mail newsletter full of literary and historical tidbits. On Wednesday I learned this about the novelist Padgett Powell:
He was a 20-year-old college student when he admitted to his favorite literature professor that he'd never read anything by Faulkner. She was horrified, and immediately gave him a copy of Faulkner's Absalom, Absalom! which changed his life.
So maybe I've got a treat in store for me.

I'll confess that I still haven't finished Moby Dick, even though I wrote a paper on it, but to my credit, I read The Great Gatsby on my own, and plan to read it again. I've never finished anything by Dickens, but I have read Louis-Ferdinand Céline's Journey to the End of the Night. I've never delved into the works of Jane Austen, Emile Zola, and Leo Tolstoy, but I have read lots of Don Delillo and almost everything by Graham Greene and Kurt Vonnegut.

And as gap-ridden as my repertoire may be, I still feel that I can afford a bit of literary snobbishness. I once sought to barrel through Victor Hugo's enormous adventure The Count of Monte Cristo one summer, when, sitting on a northern Minnesota beach, I spotted some tiny white print on the cover of my edition that read: "Abridged Version." At first I didn't believe it; the book was still well over 500 pages long! I threw it to the sand in disgust. I would not read a Cliff's Notes of a classic, any more than I would watch one of those DVDs edited for content by Mormons.

Ask any abstract artist if he or she would mind if their painting were to be hung sideways or upside-down, much less cropped, and you will get a very loud, indignant response.

This was my reaction when I read in the Times Online about Orion Group's plan for some "Compact Editions" of Anna Karenina, David Copperfield, The Mill on the Floss, Moby Dick, Vanity Fair, and Wives and Daughters.

The effort, as many moralizing efforts do, began with shame:
Malcolm Edwards, publisher of Orion Group, said that the idea had developed from a game of “humiliation”, in which office staff confessed to the most embarrassing gaps in their reading. He admitted that he had never read Middlemarch and had tried but failed to get through Moby Dick several times, while a colleague owned up to skipping Vanity Fair.
The remedy Edwards came up with was to hack away as much as 40% of the "filller" that makes up these books.

Hearing this news, one of the proprietors of the London bookshop, Crockatt and Powell, wrote in the shop's blog:
Editing the classics is a bit like watching football highlights. It might be more entertaining in a "goals per second" way but to think it is in any way close to the real experience is pure delusion. Those who read the edited classics are missing the point.
I couldn't agree more. He suggests reading short stories by great writers as an easier way into the classics.

Incidentally, a Scottish friend once told me that Americans lobbied to speed up the game of soccer by making the goal larger, which would allow for higher scores. The rest of the world wouldn't have it. Goals, in soccer (or football, as the rest of the world calls it), are not the measure of a good game; rather it's what happens between goals. It's the finesse and the strategy, the dexterity.

It reminds me of a column in The Guardian -- John Crace's "The Digested Read." I have a collection of these quick summaries, which USA Today called "Modern popular fiction recapped in 400 words or less." The fun of the recaps, though, is that Crace does them in the style of the authors. Will Self's back cover blurb is apt:
With this indispensible volume you need no longer waste time and money on reading contemporary fiction.
Or Self's own book, Dorian, which is in this collection.

I don't believe that we all have to be well-versed in every bit of classical literature, art, and whatnot. When I'm in a museum I walk through and stop only at the pieces that catch my fancy. I'm done with treating art as medicine, reading every single wall label and scrutinzing every brush stroke. I find what I like, give extra time to the historically significant stuff, and forsake almost everything in between. Of course something different catches me every time.

Occasionally I'll challenge myself with something new. And occasionally I'll be surprised by what catches my eye. I've ignored Cy Twombly's work in books, but seeing his giant abstract works at MoMA, I was moved.

I'll ingest my culture at my own pace. I won't water it down with sugar to make it sweeter or put it in the blender to pre-digest it. I'd rather consume the stuff that's good for me along with the trash and the filler. I believe that merely knowing the plot of Anna Karenina is not enough, and beside the point. If we really wanted to feel the full force of these classics, we would be reading them in the original languages. I won't modify them further by extracting the boring bits.

The best thing we can all do to enrich our lives is to strike at the impulse that tells us 'I don't have the time to read Anna Karenina.' We may be as selective as we want to be, but when time is what restricts our intake of good things, there's something seriously wrong. We need to slow down, relax, and step back. Make the time to do the things you want to do.

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1 Comments:

Blogger The Masticator said...

Edward Albee, the playwright who wrote "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?" had a bit of advice for young writers in the New York Times the other day:

"If you only read the great writers, you'll be in trouble. Read junk. It's enormously encouraging to tell yourself, 'I can do better than that.'"

1:21 PM  

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