Published: Nov 30, 2011
The writer I used to be would be appalled by the writer I have become.
Back in the days before you could get credit at Harvard for taking courses that asked you to read living writers --- back when Lit meant Chaucer, Spenser, Thackeray, Dickens and Hardy --- I graduated magna cum laude in English.
I remember long afternoons in the English Department library, bulling my way through the classics. Middlemarch (800 pages) in two days. Bleak House (1,088 pages) in three. Forget pleasure. The sense of virtue was the thrill.
Flash forward many decades to discover that this respectful student of the Canon has hacked 15,000 words out of the 28,000 immortal words in “A Christmas Carol” simply because my daughter was quickly bored when I tried to read it to her.
Worse: I’ve compounded the felony. I engaged a non-classic illustrator to spice up my all-protein version of the Charles Dickens holiday classic. I published it as an e-book available in all popular formats,. And I am now encouraging parents to consider my e-book as their go-to edition of “Christmas Carol.”
GETTING "CHRISTMAS CAROL" INTO YOUR LIFE
1) To download or make a present of the Kindle edition, click here.
2) If you don't own a Kindle, you can download the Kindle app --- free --- to your iPad or Apple computer right here.
3) To download the Nook edition (Barnes & Noble doesn’t let you make a gift of an e-book), click here.
Still worse: If this project is even remotely successful, I’m likely to take other public domain novels that I loved as a kid but are too long or stiff for today’s young readers and put them through my rapid word-loss program. My goal: to create an e-library of greatly abridged great books.
Call them “Modern Classics.”
Purists will call them something else.
In 1883, Vincent Van Gogh wrote, “I have re-read ‘Christmas Carol’ almost every year since I was a boy --- and it always seems news.” How I wish we still had that much continuity in our lives. That much time to read, to dream. But we don’t. We are bombarded by more information in a single day than Von Gogh had to deal with in the 37 years of his life. It’s changed us. And we can’t undo the change even if we flee to the proverbial desert island.
The change has a lot to do with how much information we can process, and how rapidly we can process it, but it also has to do with style.
Here are 276 words by Charles Dickens.
Meanwhile the fog and darkness thickened so, that people ran about with flaring links, proffering their services to go before horses in carriages, and conduct them on their way. The ancient tower of a church, whose gruff old bell was always peeping slyly down at Scrooge out of a Gothic window in the wall, became invisible, and struck the hours and quarters in the clouds, with tremulous vibrations afterwards as if its teeth were chattering in its frozen head up there. The cold became intense. In the main street at the corner of the court, some labourers were repairing the gas-pipes, and had lighted a great fire in a brazier, round which a party of ragged men and boys were gathered: warming their hands and winking their eyes before the blaze in rapture. The water-plug being left in solitude, its overflowing sullenly congealed, and turned to misanthropic ice. The brightness of the shops where holly sprigs and berries crackled in the lamp heat of the windows, made pale faces ruddy as they passed. Poulterers' and grocers' trades became a splendid joke; a glorious pageant, with which it was next to impossible to believe that such dull principles as bargain and sale had anything to do. The Lord Mayor, in the stronghold of the mighty Mansion House, gave orders to his fifty cooks and butlers to keep Christmas as a Lord Mayor's household should; and even the little tailor, whom he had fined five shillings on the previous Monday for being drunk and bloodthirsty in the streets, stirred up to-morrow's pudding in his garret, while his lean wife and the baby sallied out to buy the beef.
Rich? Atmospheric? In 1843, yes. But in 1843, when Dickens wrote “A Christmas Carol,” photography was an infant, movies were beyond a dream. It was Dickens’ task to create pictures in words so his readers could re-create them in their minds. That’s no longer necessary. We’ve all seen pictures of London --- even the London of the mid-nineteenth century.
We still value style, but we value story more. In my journalist years, I used to say, “There’s no book I can’t write in 4,500 words.” And, sadly for my productivity as a writer of books, that wasn’t just clever talk. Do the research for a book, boil it down and get out of the way --- readers will devour your piece. And want more.
Not a totally original thought...
Cynthia Crossen --- the ombudsman of books for the Wall Street Journal --- recently wrote: "As much as I love Trollope, Dickens and Eliot, they do try my patience."
Cressida Cowell, the author of "How To Train Your Dragon," goes further:
Attention spans are changing. It's very noticeable. I am very aware that the kind of books I read in my childhood kids now won't be able to read.
I was reading Kipling and PG Wodehouse and Shakespeare at the age of 11. The kind of description and detail I read I would not put in my books.
I don't know how much you can fight that because you want children to read. So I pack in excitement and plot and illustrations and have a cliffhanger every chapter. Charles Dickens was doing cliffhangers way back when. But even with all the excitement you have to make children care about the characters.
This is why I have made a standing offer to writers, literary agents and publishers. When you’re ready to sign off on your 400-page manuscript --- when it’s been completely edited --- send it to me. I’ll cut 50-75 pages. And if you can tell me what I cut, I’ll shred the bill.
The old ways die slowly. Over-written, under-edited prose makes us irritable, and yet we still tend to defend it --- as if a literary text comes to us with the unchanging authority of the tablets Moses brought down from the mount. So I’ve been dreading the early responses to my radically shortened “Christmas Carol.” But I’ve received one reaction so far I’d like to share:
Thank you for “A Christmas Carol.” I bought two copies --- one for my granddaughter and one for me. We are reading together over Skype.
It’s signed “The 21st Century grandmother.”
I say Granny gets it. I say she’s not alone. I say there are millions of Americans who would read more if books were edited more. And if the publishing industry doesn’t want to satisfy them, I say I’m willing to try.