Monday, January 22, 2007

"Edited Classics"

This weekend I read about Weidenfeld & Nicholson's plans to produce a series titled Compact Editions.

These are classics that are to be "sympathetically edited" down to under 400 pages to make them appear less "elitist" and daunting reads.

I find this a bizarre idea. In the first place is it not the height of arrogance to believe that Moby Dick or Anna Karenina can be edited without radically changing the reading experience? Or am I just being fuc*ing elitist? When I was at college I was the only person in my class to read Moby Dick all the way through. (Yes - I was one of the wan*kers that was interested in literature and not just doing a degree in English Lit because it was an easy degree) I remember the long sections where, page after page, Melville describes the kit involed in whaling or the anatomical structure of the whale. Are these the sort of sections that will be chopped away? Ok, they go on a bit but it all helps to build the picture of the depths of obsession that lie at the heart of Captain Ahab's search for Moby Dick. It was also important to Melville as he was keen to write a novel that was true to the reality of whaling at that point in time. I just don't think it is possible to edit the classics without destroying what is interesting and important about them.

Over the weekend I read another of the fantastic Melville House series of novellas. This time it was Tolstoy's The Devil. It's just one hundred pages long, perfect for a Sunday afternoon single sitting read.

If anyone wants a quick intro to the classics then here is a perfect entry point. Don't rush straight into War and Peace, try The Devil first or some of the short stories. At least that way you are reading something that the author intended to be short. If you find it heavy going then fine, you know that writer isn't for you. But I defy anyone to get nothing from Chekhov's short stories or from the Melville House novellas. I haven't read War and Peace yet but I will one day. At the minute I still feel I'm just starting to understand Tolstoy. I look forward to re-reading Anna Karenina soon (last read it when I was 18) and then, maybe in a year or two, going for War and Peace. (My mum read it recently and said it's kind of like East Enders goes to Russia!) The classics are there for the long term. They will provide a lifetime of great reading for anyone prepared to make the effort required to enjoy them. To make that effort you don't have to be royalty or have a literature degree - so stuff the elitist crap!

After finishing The Devil I was moved to do a little research on Tolstoy. I didn't realise at the end of his life he corresponded with Ghandi and had a great influence on his thinking on non-violence and passive resistance. These books are classics for a reason! They are stores of human wisdom and thought - the vehicle for ideas that have changed the world.

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.

Call me elitist - I don't care.

The classics matter and should not be messed with...


  1. Also, there is a way to read long, daunting classics without them being abridged. It's called skimming* the boring bits. Or am I missing the point...

    *NB not skipping

  2. My uncle loves War and Peace because of the battle scenes.

    Many people believe those to be very dull...

    Skimming is preferable to editing because at least then you can decide what to skip. An edited classic means someone else cuts sections out.

    If my uncle read an edited version of War and Peace without the battle scenes he might hate it - when with battle scenes it is one of his faves!

  3. What the authors of classics and readers of classics have in common is, time. The reading experience is similar to going on a stroll rather than on a run. You can’t shorten the experience without disturbing the rhythm of the words and the flow of the narrative. What an absurd idea to create Tolstoy lite!

    I was also one of those won*kers (is this your word in feminine form?). I read War and Peace throughout the winter of seventeenth year. Your mother is right by the way about it being the East Enders gone Russian. It’s an acquired taste and it takes time and the ability to detach yourself from Aristotle’s method of narrative suspense; but if it catches you, you’re in for a long pleasant stroll.

  4. Perhaps in retaliation we could form a counter publishing venture where we take books like The Da Vinci Code, The Celestine Prophecy or Bridget Jones Diary and inject them with all manner of ellipsis, paradox, ambiguity and near Joycean complexity.

    In all seriousness what I always find depressing about these ideas is that they often come from those with a very good education. To take television production, for example, is there any more sad comment on cultural drift than various Channel 4 execs tripping over themselves to justify the latest reality tv concept or docusoap as a "fascinating mirror of the UK zeitgeist."

    I am all for bringing the best of culture - high, low or midcult - to a wide audience, but as something like the Penguin paperbacks or a TV program like John Berger's Way of Seeing once demonstrated, there are ways to do this without being a be blunt.

  5. Please free Bridget Jones' Diary from association with the Da Vinci Code or the Celestine Prophecy. It is actually a brilliantly observed satire, extraordinarily funny and utterly misunderstood. Tends to be seen by those who haven't read it as an undemanding 'pink' book, no doubt because it is about a young woman and contains kissing. In fact it's so sharp you could cut yourself on it. Posterity will rank it with Dickens and Austen for wit and social observation. And no, I am not joking.

  6. Marie! Are you going to reveal yourself as the real Helen Fielding?

    I always thought you have a bit of the Bridgets about you...

    Go on admit it. You wrote BJD didn't you!

  7. If only...