Sunday, April 29, 2007

Too Many Words

An article on the Times online site details how Orion Books is slimming down some classics in order to make them more appealing to modern readers who are strapped for time, but still want to be able to say that they've read the originals. According to Malcolm Edwards of Orion, research confirmed that 'many regular readers think of the classics as long, slow and, to be frank, boring'. Presumably sensing a marketing opportunity, Orion realised that 'life is too short to read all the books you want to'; thus the decision to trim David Copperfield, The Mill on the Floss, Moby Dick, Anna Karenina, Vanity Fair, and Wives and Daughters by 30–40%, by eliminating words, sentences, paragraphs, and even whole chapters. As the above makes clear, it's not just readers' busy lives that Orion is concerned about; there's also the fact that the classics can, in their view, be somewhat on the difficult and boring side. The cuts have been made in an attempt to 'make the story and characters emerge', and make the books that much easier for poor twenty-first century readers to understand. Said Mr Edwards, 'Moby Dick must have been difficult in 1850—in 2007 it’s nigh-on impossible to make your way through it.'

Orion seems to be playing up the time—or lack of it—element more than the difficulty side, pitching their new editions as the perfect solution for those who want to appear well-read but simply don't have the time, in our busy modern world, to sit down and read every page of the originals. Oddly enough, I'd have a bit more sympathy if they played up the difficulty angle, because a good many classic books can, to a modern reader unfamiliar with the world depicted and the language used, be somewhat daunting. Here, though, I agree with Matthew Crockatt, a London bookseller who says, 'I’m afraid reading some of these books is hard work, which is why you have to develop as a reader. If people don’t have time to read Anna Karenina, then fine. But don’t read a shortened version and kid yourself it’s the real thing.'

Well said, Mr Crockatt. As readers, we all start off with books on the level of the 'Dick and Jane' titles that were still in use when I was in Grade One, and then graduate to progressively more difficult works as we work our way through school, until we're reading Macbeth in high school and (if the education system has done its job) understanding it. The trick—although it's hardly that, more common sense and a bit of work—is to build gradually, going from book to book until before you know it you're reading Our Mutual Friend and recognising that while the setting and language might be different to what we're used to, the characters and their reasons for acting the way they do aren't so very far removed from the people we see around us, and read about in the newspapers, each day. To use a sporting analogy, no one would advise an armchair athlete who wanted to run in a 10 kilometre event to just lace up a pair of trainers and go do it; instead, he or she would be advised to follow a programme which starts off slowly—running for one minute out of every five the first week, say—and then builds on that over the course of several weeks until, by the end of training, he or she is running the entire distance. In this way, a goal that seemed daunting, if not impossible, at the outset of training can be accomplished (of which I am living proof; I used such a programme, and was able to complete three 10K runs and even a half-marathon, a triumph of determination over innate physical ability if ever there was one. But I digress).

However, building one's way up to reading Moby Dick does take a fair bit of—and here's that word again—time, which, according to the well-meaning folk at Orion, is something of which we simply don't have enough. Their thoughts, apparently, are along the lines that if someone doesn't have time to read the unabridged version of Moby Dick, one certainly doesn't have time to do all the reading that will get him or her to the point where they can sit and read Melville's book. Here is where I start to get a bit cross. I can understand, and to a degree sympathise with, the point of view which says 'Such-and-such is long and difficult; not only do I not really understand it, it's a bit on the dull side, and I'm not enjoying it.' I'll read just about anything you care to put my way, doorstopper-sized classics included, but even I, moi qui vous parle, confess to having been somewhat bored by a few Approved Classics By Revered Authors that I've read (no names, no pack drill; but I can't think I'll ever be picking up Dickens's Barnaby Rudge again, at least not without a healthy financial incentive). Books are meant to be enjoyed; if you're not enjoying what you're reading, for whatever reason, put it down and go on to something else. But don't start whingeing about how you don't have time to sit down and read Wives and Daughters or David Copperfield. If something is important enough to you—whether it's reading a book or planting a garden or taking part in amateur theatricals or pick-up hockey games—you'll find the time to do it. How many of the people who claim they don't have time to read Vanity Fair will tell you, in the same breath, that they won't miss an episode of Lost or House or Desperate Housewives, or that they've made it to level 379 of some video game or other, or that now that baseball season is here they find they have a lot less spare time than they used to?

The bottom line is that those who want to read David Copperfield will read it; those who don't, or who don't feel they have the time, won't, and chopping 40% of Dickens's text is unlikely to make much difference to the latter group. The Orion 'compact' editions will doubtless make a bit of a splash for the short term; but in ten years or so I suspect that Dickens's unabridged version will still be readily available, while the Orion version will be long forgotten (the less than compelling cover illustration—see above—won't help much, either). For those who do pick up and read the abridged version: good for you. But don't try telling me you've read Charles Dickens's David Copperfield, or I shall be compelled to point out that no, you haven't, not really: you've read what someone else thinks Charles Dickens's David Copperfield should be, which is a very different matter; one that's as true as taxes is, and nothing, as Barkis points out, is truer than them. At least, Barkis points this out in the original; whether he continues to do so in the Orion version remains to be seen.


Todd T said...

Hi Barbara. I didn't know that you had a blog until i spent some time catching up with the Yahoo All Hallows group, and so I apologize for coming in rather late to the topic you have raised here.

I am going to take a contrarian view on this, and sound rather unbookish in so doing. Here's my reasoning.

Regarding the shunning of long books on that basis alone, I am afraid I am frequently guilty of this myself. I think that lacking time is a fair claim.

1. One long book can take up time that could be used for three shorter books, and the latter would broaden one's experiences more than the one huge brick would.

2. I don't watch a lot of filler TV, but I do think that there is value in spending time on a variety of activities. I have at least a hundred books on the want-to-read-soon queue. I'd love to read more than I do, but I would have to forfeit things that also have value to me. This is not the same as saying that the long book holds no attraction and would not offer value, but it is to say that reading must compete with other interests even in a devoted reader's schedule.

3. I read very slowly. If I could read 800 pages a week, length would not be an issue for me, but an 800 page book takes me the better part of a month to finish. Life dwindles, and other books call.

I would also argue that a person out there who has read 2/3 of MOBY DICK is still on the plus side for society compared to the person who has not read any of it. No, they should not fool themselves about what they've read, but neither should they feel they've learned nothing about it. It has no appeal to me personally, but I'd rather live in a world where most people can at least talk about MD than the one we now have.

That said, I believe you are correct that these abridgements will probably not sell. Being shorter will not help the books overcome the perception that they are boring and out of step with modern folk. I think it's only serious readers who generally wish they'd read such and such a classic, not casual readers between James Patterson titles.

- Todd T.

Barbara Roden said...

You raise some interesting points, Todd, and certainly lack of time is an issue for many people, as is the length of time that these books take to read. However, the recent Harry Potter books are pretty long, as are such within living memory bestsellers as JONATHAN STRANGE & MR NORRELL, THE CRIMSON PETAL AND THE WHITE, THE QUINCUNX, and even THE DA VINCI CODE. Granted, these books are probably slightly easier reads for modern audiences than, say, MOBY DICK or MIDDLEMARCH, but a lot of people who set aside the time to read JONATHAN STRANGE could probably tackle DAVID COPPERFIELD (unabridged) just as easily.

And I agree that there is certainly value in spending time in a variety of ways, and living a well-balanced life. As I argue in my post, though, if someone wants to do something badly enough, he or she will find the time somehow; and in a lot of ways it would be better to read MOBY DICK as Melville originally wrote it, rather than in an edition where someone has gone through and decided what can be elminated. It's analagous to watching a film in widescreen rather than in a pan-and-scan version: I'd rather watch the movie as the director originally intended it to be seen, rather than the way in which some backroom boy has decided it should be viewed.

And yes, anyone who thinks that MOBY DICK is boring, or difficult, in Melville's version is unlikely to pick up a shortened edition.