Literature Is Not Supposed To Be Convenient

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I know just enough about cricket to believe those who say it’s an idiosyncratic, subtle, perpetually fascinating sport. My conversion is based on a day last January at Newlands in Capetown, where South Africa was hosting India in a five-day test match. I was fortunate to be seated between two cricket aficionados, one Indian and one South African, and to be well-supplied with cold Castle Beer, which unlike stadium beer in the States could be had for less than a gold brick per glass. My inclination to like the sport rose steadily right up to and beyond the time the players broke for tea. Yes, cricket is a game where you break for tea. The match we were watching was in its third day, and was expected to continue another two. "Who’s going to win?" I asked. "Probably nobody," shrugged my Indian friend. Nobody??? This struck me as aggressively un-American. If Dick Cheney decides one of his corporate friends needs to bomb cricket pitches in the service of freedom, it won’t come as too great a surprise. In any case, cricket is a game that can go on most of a week, and for all that end in a draw.

There is talk, not surprisingly, of streamlining the game, and a faster, more dynamic one-day version of cricket (in which there is always a winner) has in fact been gaining popularity. "Less boring, less time-consuming, more convenient," say its advocates. Perhaps. I would like nothing better than to lay down half a page of anachronistic, reactionary grousing at this point, but will only say: Fine, go ahead and fix what wasn’t broke on two conditions. First, call it cricket lite or cricket castrato if you like, but don’t call it cricket. And second, at least consider the possibility that the game itself is not to blame for being too long or too boring; rather our attention spans are too short, the pace of our lives too frenetic, and our cult of Convenience too consuming to encourage our appreciation of just about anything we consider “demanding" (which is just about everything). In short, we have become too boring for cricket, not the other way round.

A sinner who likes five-day cricket might be expected to like Moby-Dick too, and I’ve just read it a third time through. The first was in high school (largely clueless), the second in graduate school (largely joyless). This time was the charm, as third times are said to be. D.H. Lawrence was right. Moby-Dick takes you on "a wonderful, wonderful voyage" and is "a surpassingly beautiful book," "one of the strangest and most wonderful books in the world." Lawrence calls Melville a "deep great artist." At the same time he calls him a "solemn ass," and grumbles at a style he variously considers "clownish, clumsy, sententious, amateurish, and spurious." Yet for all that, it is obvious that Lawrence would rather die than change a word of Moby-Dick, whatever the inconvenient demands it made on him as a reader.

Times have changed. The news recently carried a story about Orion Publishing’s plans to introduce a series of gelded classics, one of which will be Moby-Dick. "We realized that because the books were so long we were never going to read them," Malcolm Edwards, deputy CEO at Orion, explains. Thus, books like Anna Karenina, David Copperfield, and Moby-Dick are to have words, sentences, paragraphs, and sometimes entire chapters snipped away to make them 30—40% less "long, slow, and repetitive." "Moby-Dick must have been difficult in 1850 — in 2007 it’s nigh-on impossible to make your way through it. But with our 350-page version the story and the characters emerge." Oh? Is this to suggest that the story and characters don’t emerge in the 750-page version — that the Orion gelding is a step up from Melville’s stallion?

Too much "padding" in Moby-Dick say the folks at Orion Publishing. It’s possibly not so much their problem as ours. We’ve become a people with time and inclination to follow the Paris Hilton "story," but not enough of either to be inconvenienced by the "nigh-on impossible" likes of Melville’s. One-day cricket and a 350-page Moby-Dick is all we’re up for, apparently. Maybe we deserve castrated classics but the artists who gave birth to them don’t. And there are other objections to the cutting:

  1. Orion claims its selected classics are "sympathetically edited" down to 300 or 400 pages. But don’t readers do this sort of sympathetic editing anyway? Don’t a reader’s eyes and mind zero in on the meat of a book and trim away the fat naturally? Besides, what’s wrong with "padding"? I happen to want to watch the full tennis match, not the 15-minute Euro-Sport reduction that just shows the "interesting" bits. Who decides what’s interesting? If it’s a question of Moby-Dick, I’d rather decide than have Orion’s editors, no matter how sympathetic, do it for me. Would they take away Melville’s chapter called "Chowder," for instance, or the one called "Ambergris"? They might, and if they did, it would be a crying shame.
  2. Orion says: "We realize life is too short to read all the books you want to read…" Of course this is true. I have never read War and Peace or Anna Karenina, and possibly never will, though I aspire to get it right someday. Yet just as Orion says, life may be too short. And even if I beat death to the Tolstoys, there will still be Finnegan’s Wake and a thousand others. The Orion approach suggests that if only War and Peace and Anna Karenina were shorter, I’d have time to read them before the funeral, and a neutered Finnegan’s Wake to boot. I see it another way. It is not the fault of time or death if I don’t read War and Peace, Anna Karenina, or Finnegan’s Wake. And it is certainly not Tolstoy’s or Joyce’s fault either. It’s nobody’s fault, or possibly it’s my fault, for wasting such a large chunk of life on crossword puzzles, cricket, and Castle Beer. I think of Edward Abbey in Desert Solitaire, when he objects to the asphalting of wilderness in national park areas to allow elderly and/or tenderfoot visitors access to the most remote places. If they didn’t have the wherewithal or interest to get to those places when they were young or physically capable, contends Abbey, that’s too bad, but that’s how it is. They missed it. They need not be accommodated at the expense of the very wilderness they have belatedly come to see, but cannot properly experience through a Winnebago window in any event. It may sound harsh, but I think Abbey’s view is sensible. And if death gets to me before I get to Anna Karenina, tough. That’s the breaks. I’d have missed it. Better to accept that reality than try to cheat time by reading face-lifted versions, in my opinion.
  3. Orion says: "We are trying to make these books convenient for readers…." The word grates. Literature simply is not convenient. It is challenging, demanding, mind-altering, sometimes life-altering. Orion goes on, apparently to reassure people like me: "….but it’s not as if we’re withdrawing the original versions. They are still there if you want to read them." That’s some consolation, but how long will they be there? How far will the tampering go? How out of touch will the readership become? In Fahrenheit 451, The Martian Chronicles, and many of his stories, Ray Bradbury foresees a time when books will be burned, or changed, or "corrected" — when Poe and Shakespeare will have the soul cut out of them. It is a frightening and sad thought, and frightening and sad as well to consider how prophetic Fahrenheit 451 has already shown itself to be. While Orion’s decision to cut the classics is hardly a fulfillment of Bradbury prophecy, one wonders if it might not be a nod in that direction, a nudge towards a time when our greatest authors will not be given enough consideration to keep their books as they were written. The classics, Orion counters, are not "religious icons," after all. Changing them isn’t a sacrilege. I’m not so sure I agree.
  4. It boils down to a question of respect for an author and his or her work. "Of course [the whale in Moby-Dick] is a symbol," Lawrence wrote. "Of what? I doubt if even Melville knew exactly. That’s the best of it." This is a wonderful, respectful reading of a wonderful book. If even Melville didn’t know just what it all meant, how will the sympathetic editors at Orion? I cannot imagine Melville being pleased to learn that the "padding" would one day be pulled from a work he put so much of his soul into. "No great and enduring volume can ever be writ on the flea, though many there be who have tried it," Melville remarks in Moby-Dick. One wonders what will be left of lines like that when 30—40% of the whale has been taken out.

John Liechty [send him mail] currently teaches in Muscat, Oman.

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