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Dickens for Dummies: Making the classics safe for today’s dimwitted tots.

December 9, 2011

The Ghost of Christmas Future foresees the death of books.

When Jesse Kornbluth’s daughter found A Christmas Carol boring, the former editorial director at AOL decided to improve Dickens by gutting 15,000 words out of it.

Now he wants to do the same for your stupid kid.

Fifteen thousand words out of a text that’s only 28,000 to begin with. “The story is a slow starter,” Kornbluth declares. “The language is clotted. There’s a lot of extraneous description.”

So like a one man Readers Digest Condensed Books, he fixed it. Voila! It’s all “protein” now, he says.

Kornbluth stepped back from his labors and saw that it was good. He immediately packaged his “gently abridged”  (!) Christmas Carol as an e-book. He promises to perform the same public service for other classics.

In an appallingly pleased-with-himself essay at HuffPo, Kornbluth makes the argument that the world has changed since we were children, reading the classics in their original, raw form.

Kids today don’t have the attention span for it, he says. So the best thing to do is simplify those great old books so the dolts we are raising in our households can get through them.

Hold on a minute. When I stop sputtering I’ll explain the manifold ways in which this is wrong — morally wrong, practically wrong, aesthetically wrong, pedagogically wrong, not to mention ahistorical, anachronistic, and an example of spectacularly bad parenting.

“Actually, I don’t consider myself a butcher. And I don’t think I maimed A Christmas Carol. My goal wasn’t to rewrite Dickens, just to update the archaic language, trim the dialogue, cut the extraneous characters and reduce the book to its essence, which is the story.”

Not a butcher?!? You vivisected 50 percent of the text! I’d really like to know what this guy’s definition of the word “butcher” is. Also “rewrite.” If that’s not rewriting, then nothing is.

Kornbluth’s argument is based on so many misconceptions I don’t know where to begin, so I’ll start with personal experience. When I was a kid I read voraciously, but even then, in the 1960s, I stood out as a freak. Most of my friends read little, if at all. So the inability of most of today’s kids to muster the concentration for, say, A Christmas Carol, does not necessarily portend a seismic change.

Even if otherwise intelligent children can’t muster the wherewithal to get through a classic novel, is it best to bring the novel down to the child’s level? Or the other way around? I’d be very interested to know if Kornbluth’s daughter has a computer, iPad, or TV in her bedroom. I’d love to know if the family van has a DVD player in the back seat. I’d love to know if Jesse and his wife have used a portable DVD player as a mental pacifier.

If so, the first step is to get rid of, or at least great reduce access to these electronic devices. The brain responds just like a muscle. Challenge it and the capacity for concentrated attention will grow. Pander to it by, say, taking out the boring parts of classic novels, and it will turn flaccid and lazy and not want to get up off the mental couch.

By simplifying A Christmas Carol, Kornbluth has not only insulted his daughter, he’s also assaulted Dickens. I say if we can’t read our way through older books then it’s better to discard them than to turn them into something their authors would not recognize.

Furthermore, one of the great virtues of reading books of earlier eras is the immersion into different patterns of thought. In the 19th century, people thought and wrote in slower, denser and more discursive ways. Anyone, even an adult, coming to one of the classics today has to go through the process, over the first few pages or chapters,  of learning to read the book on its own terms.

I shouldn’t have to explain to someone as sophisticated as Kornbluth that this is one of the great benefits of reading, and, despite the discomfort of the mental challenge, once of its great joys, too, when you finally break through and start to swim with the writer instead of against him.

When my children were small, I thought it would be swell to read The Hobbit to them, but it proved too dense and slow and boring, so we went on to something else. A few months later, I brought them Treasure Island. Although Treasure Island is likewise a challenging read — Robert Louis Stevenson intentionally used language already archaic when he wrote in the 1880s — it opens with a tense and exciting sequence and the girls were hooked.

As we read through the novel, I frequently had to stop to explain a word or provide historical context, but my daughters –especially the eldest, who was nine at the time — were transfixed throughout. As a coda: All three found Tolkien on their own as teenagers, blazing through The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings.

Kornbluth labors under the mistaken idea he’s done his daughter a favor by taking the “boring” bits out of A Christmas Carol. In reality, he’s performed a great disservice.

I mean, what’s next, Jess — you don’t mind if I call you Jess, do you? Saves us a letter — what’s next after you’ve taken your scalpel and bone saw to Tom Sawyer, The Secret Garden, Alice in Wonderland, Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea, or Little Women?

If we pander to the Amazing Shrinking Attention span then it will only grow smaller and smaller, like a puddle of soul drying up under the radiation of a great digital sun. Simplified novels will give way to comic books, which will give way to picture books (“See Scrooge run!”), which will devolve to the logical destination of this whole thing, functional illiteracy.

Good job, Jess. Hope that e-book sells a bazillion copies.


4 Comments leave one →
  1. December 9, 2011 12:44 pm

    Hmm valid in all its high mindedness as if the world were made up of one size fits all. There are kids who never heard of Dickens — don’t want to know Dickens — would never in a zillion years read Dickens — The Real Question: : Is enucletated Dickens worse than no Dickens? to which you would probably answer YES! But what if a non-Dickens reader might be propelled into “our” camp — with that “ice cream” introduction ? I gave up believing that all issues can be categorized into either Black or White. a long time ago.

  2. Chauncey Mabe permalink*
    December 9, 2011 2:47 pm

    I’m called high minded by someone who uses the word “enucletated”? Haha. Yes, I very much believe that Dickens pre-digested to pablum is worse than no Dickens at all. If you present Dickens in this way, there is no reason for a reader to seek out his books at a later stage of intellectual or emotional development. If the child can’t take Dickens, give him or her something less challenging — but still good and whole. I don’t really think taking a stand against eviscerating, emasculating, and otherwise attenuating the classics is high minded at all.

  3. December 9, 2011 4:49 pm

    Ya know…I agreed with you at first, but our world is no longer as we know it. Too “e” and too “I”. With electronicthoughts now processed in this time frame, I become a little more generous by letting go of the old (albeit not entirely) and accepting the new(again not entirely ) and by doing so I too grow. Ifand it is a big IF, just say the great classics of another era were left in their original form and never picked up by the young savvy “e” and “I” prefixed genious of today, they might never be read and understood and even enjoyed. AND to take it one “IF” further what if the old cliche’ “What is, was and what was will be again.” which holds true in war and in fashion happens in the literary world, it will be a big novelty to our descendants.

  4. December 14, 2011 2:10 pm

    Hold on, I’m looking up enucleate… Ohhh okay, I get it now.

    I read so little growing up- not due to a lack of parental encouragement but to the general mental slothfulness I chose as my path at the time; yet something in me even way, way back then has long yearned to read the classics “when I got around to it”.

    It’s taken a few decades but I’ve finally managed to get to a number of them. Thank God for the most part all my copies are old, faded, stained, dog-eared and broken-backed. Not to mention containing every single, solitary word that author meant to be read.

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