Literature Is Not Supposed To Be Convenient


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?