Wednesday, August 02, 2006

Abridge too far?

In proofreading the Fall issue of the Horn Book Guide today, I came across a series published by Sterling called Classic Starts, a series of--well, let's not here get into a discussion of the term "classic," we'll instead go with "famous and copyright-free"--novels abridged and retold for young readers. Titles include Huck Finn, Little Women, Call of the Wild--the usual suspects. Each volume contains an afterword by Arthur Pober, not, as you might think, pointing out the virtues of each title, but rather supplying the rationale for the series. It's the same in each volume and it goes like this:

Even for a gifted young reader, getting through long chapters with dense language can easily become overwhelming and can obscure the richness of the story and its characters. Reading an abridged, newly crafted version of a classic novel can be the gentle introduction a child needs to explore the characters and story line without the frustrations of difficult vocabulary and complex themes.

Reading an abridged version of a classic novel gives the young reader a sense of independence and the satisfaction of finishing a "grown-up" book. And when a child is engaged with and inspired by a classic story, the tone is set for further exploration of the story's themes, characters, history, and details. As a child's reading skills advance, the desire to tackle the original, unabridged version of the story will naturally emerge.

Oh, sure. Here's what it really wants to say:

Attention Walmart Shopper: For only $4.95, you can buy this hardcover version of a book you have definitely heard of but have probably never read. And not just any old famous book but a classic, the kind of book your third- or fourth- grader should be reading rather than wasting his or her time with an easy and probably demonic "children's book." This book used to be a grownup book, which means your child will be smarter and more advanced after reading it. And think of the sense of pride and satisfaction you will have that your child read a classic. Go ahead and brag. You've earned it.


Andy Laties said...

This series was the subject of a repulsively gentle puff piece in the Wall Street Journal last year. Here's the abstract/excerpt from the WSJ website: I ain't gonna pay $4.95 to get online access to the article's full text.

Simplified Classics? Educators Are Divided

By Jeffrey A. Trachtenberg, The Wall Street Journal, 1065 words
May 23, 2005

A key issue, says Linda Spector, director of special education at Ann Arbor Academy in Ann Arbor, Mich., is that many kids with reading issues are at a high conceptual level. Ms. Spector would welcome the new series from Sterling Publishing into the school's library as a resource for students who want to read "[Tom Sawyer]" but can't. However, in the classroom she is emphasizing original literature by using short stories. "We're getting away from the adaptations and want the beautiful, original language," she says.

Now -- the point is that here's Wall Street Journal enthusing about these abridgements -- and in the article, the basis for that enthusiasm is that it's a PROFITABLE thing to be doing for Barnes & Noble.

So -- Roger -- you're complaints are irrelevant. Barnes & Noble is a publicly listed stock on the exchange and this is the central motivation behind their strategic planning and publishing processes.

Your post admittedly functions kind of like waving a red cape in front of a maddened bull, where yours truly is concerned. SCREW THE CHAINS!

Andrea said...

Why read an abridged classic when soon you can see the Disney movie version? And when it is "Disney's" story, not only is the original language gone, but so is the name of the original author of the tale. Soon we'll have "Disney's Tom Sawyer" and "Disney's Little Women".

They should have stopped at the Wishbone TV series, where "classic" stories are enacted by a dog. At least it is more honest.

Lynn said...

With the increasing popularity of the grahic novel genre, it is intersting to see how many of the classics are getting a second life. I have been slowly building our graphic novel collection and, at professors requests, have added a few graphic (novel) interpretations of the classics.

I have recently read Frankenstein and Edgar Allen Poe in graphic format. Both were well done with the art complimenting the "story." Since the format of these adaptations (as opposed to abridged) necessitates brevity, how much of the story is sacrificed?

Summer Institute NCS said...
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Lelac Almagor said...

Or alternately: Listen, let's admit that nobody would actually want to read that old stuff if they could possibly avoid it.

The language is "long and dense" on purpose and to no particular end; one finds oneself discussing at length what the author was "trying to say," because he or she wins points for effort but struggles in expressing himself or herself clearly. (Shakespeare is here a key example. The man doesn't even have spell check.)

The themes are needlessly "complex" because these authors all lived in the time before God invented Hallmark cards, so people didn't realize yet that love is good and pain is bad, nor had society perfected the Bronx cheer for the existentially wicked.

But! We at Classic Starts have the technology to tell you what the great authors would have been trying to say, if they were a part of OUR corporate family. Nobody will ever have to crack the spine of one of those confusing monsters ever again. Unless they're interested in the themes, characters, history, and details.

Jane said...

Ah, come on, guys, tell us what you really think!

I did something called "Crushed Classics" in my book on writing, TAKE JOY.

One example: Anna Karinina

Anna was a good woman.
She met a bad man.
She met a fast train.
The end.


Lord of the Rings

Yo, Fro,
Give the mountain the finger.

CCs also include the likes of Moby Dick, Jane Eyre, Ethan Frome, lots of Shakespeare, Huck Finn etc.

And the one that didn't make it into the book (I wonder why.)

Catcher in the Rye

With a fuck.

At least those are honest.


Misrule said...

Oh Roger, you beat, hands down, all of us fellow bloggers with your witty, pithy post titles:

Abridge too far?


Must Send Minties.

Alex Flinn said...

Ick. This is a sub-syndrome of "Every Child is Gifted" Syndrome, where every child must be reading HARRY POTTER in first grade (Do they even know what a boarding school is then?) and GREAT EXPECTATIONS by fifth. Why read a contemporary middle grade or YA novel that's appropriate for their reading and interest level when they can be thoroughly turned off to reading by their pushy parents with a denatured version of HUCK FINN?

Andy Laties said...

Betty Comden and Adolf Green, who wrote the books/lyrics to the Broadway shows "On The Town," "Wonderful Town," "Candide," and "On The Twentieth Century" also wrote some marvelous novelty tunes. One is "The Reader's Digest Told Me So" which contains the verses:

"War and Peace:
Napoleon did not beware,
He ignored the Russian bear,
Came out on his derriere,

"Les Miserables:
Jean Valjean no evil-doer,
Stole some bread 'cause he was poo-er,
Detective chased him through a sewer,

In reference to the idea of a Hornbookblogwiki -- something tells me I posted that summary of War & Peace 8 months ago when we were discussing the book.

Winnie said...

I've tried to let this go, but as the mother of a child with dyslexia (and who is decidedly *not* a Wal-Mart shopper), I can't. Dr. Sally Shaywitz, neuroscientist at Yale University and foremost dyslexia researcher, recommends abridgements, cartoon classics, even watching a movie version of said book, prior to reading the real thing. By doing so, the reader knows where the story is going so that the frustration of slowly reading a dense book is lessened. Brain MRI studies indicate that about 20% of the population is dyslexic. Dyslexia is not related to IQ. There are many bright people who have given up on reading in frustration due to undiagnosed dyslexia. I object when the spirit of a story is altered in the retelling, as Disney often does, but if that is not the case, then I applaud the efforts of a publisher trying to reach an audience for whom reading may not come naturally.

Melinda said...

I'm surprised that I'm coming in on the side of the abridged version because generally I'm such a purist when it comes to books, i.e. "How DARE they cut the Cetology chapter of Moby Dick!"

But Winnie has a point. I've read "Well-Trained Mind," which is about home-schooling kids in the trivium. And they recommend starting kids on the classics by telling shorter versions of the tales when they're young -- an abridged version of the Iliad, for example -- then a more advanced version later on. By the time they hit junior high, they're not phased by the original, because they're already familiar with the story and its background.

What I object to is badly-written stuff. If you're going to approach a classic in this way, dammit let's do it with a good version with some scholarship behind it.

Andy Laties said...

Yes I agree that the issue is the quality of the modification. I sell the Peter Kuper graphic novel edition of Kafka's METAMORPHOSIS for instance. This is a work of art in its own right. If Barnes & Noble were bringing in Jane Yolen to write their MOBY DICK abridgement, I'd absolutely recommend this brand-new work of art. (Actually, I sell the Will Eisner graphic novel of MOBY DICK, too.)

Melinda said...

Hmm ... hadn't realized that graphic novels of these classics existed. My girl (she's 5) likes the Babymouse books, and I was getting ready to ransack the library for more graphic novels that are about her speed, so that might be another way to approach the classics. Though of course I wouldn't start her on Metamorphosis for a few years. (She's singing along with "Wonder Pets" right now, for goodness' sake.)

Melinda said...

Just caught the Operation Market Garden reference in your title. I loaned that book to my dad and need to get it back.

Lelac Almagor said...

I see an enormous difference between shortening a classic and "retelling" it -- which presumably means giving plot summary but excising any richness of language or quirkiness of style.

If the child's going to have to see the movie and read the Cliffs Notes in order to get through the novel -- by which point there may be no difficulty but there is certainly no suspense or amazement -- why bother to get through the novel at all? Where's the virtue in that? Is it -- as Phillip Pullman crucially asks -- worth doing? Why not read something more compelling and level-appropriate? (If the answer is "for a school assignment," that's another story altogether.)

Anonymous said...

This was shooting fish in a barrel. I, personally, think Roger dreamed up the blog only because he had such a winning title he couldn't bear to waste it. Boy's own paper, indeed.

web said...

But think how much useless verbiage is saved, when a long-winded beginning like "It was the best of times, it was the worst of times..." becomes the pithy, "It was the year 1791"!

Evan said...

I don't know if this is the same series, but every Christmas around these parts, one or the other of the department stores at the mall will pop up with a table full of abridged-for-kids hardcover "classic" books.

I always enjoy picking up the ones with famous first sentences to see how they've made the transition. For instance, there was A Tale Of Two Cities, with that classic opening paragraph: "It was the year 1775."

Melinda said...

Lelac, I'm going to have to disagree with you there. When I was in high school, I wanted to read Dante's Comedy on my own, but ended up getting mired in all the Florencian allusions he dumped into the text. Nobody had told me that the man was a walking medieval encyclopedia. Also I had a crappy translation. But when I hit college and was guided through it, it became one of my books. Same with the Iliad. Who the hell are all these guys anyway? Once I got a little tour, I could sort them out. Well, until soldiers start getting speared by pitiless brass.

And I don't think the reader loses any suspense if they've already been exposed to the story in the past. Think of the Greeks; they'd retell old tales constantly. Most everybody in the theatre knew how Oedipus Rex was going to end up. Of course knowing the ending is enough to make you cringe. But when you meet the story in the hands of a master, the language and imagry is going to suck you right in.

I come from blue-collar stock; nobody in my family was able to sit down with me and walk me through the classics. For some folks, an abridged version is all there is for a guide. Though, 'tis true, I never liked how they were written. But I was able to find my way more easily around the original when I met it.

Of course, there's a danger of the reader being turned off from the original by an especially lackluster rewrite.

Roger Sutton said...

I'm not against abridgments, retellings, Classic Comics (loved those, in fact) or seeing the movie before reading the book. And I always read the libretto before going to the opera. My objection is to what I see as the unspoken agenda of the series--that children somehow "need" to read these books right now rather than wait for when the themes might prove more compelling and the language less daunting; that there isn't a whole world of books that most kids would get more out of; that parents should stick to what is familiar and supposedly "safe" when it comes to children's reading. Is a watered-down and white-washed Huck Finn of more value than, say, Jip: His Story?

Melinda said...

It is always best to read the libretto first, esp. when it comes to those quartets when everybody's singing different texts at the same time, and in *Italian*. I mean, honestly.

Well, you know these publishers want to convey that sense of urgency, read these right now! Because that's how you get us parents to shell out the big bucks. And we're helpless when it comes to choosing familiar books over unfamiliar ones. Even I do it. And my kid especially does it; I turn around and there's Miss Thang unloading shelves of work-for-hire editions of Dora and Sponge Bob. I tried to raise her right! I really did!

What we need is a children's book fiend in every store who can gently but firmly drag people away from the crap and over to the good. Or body check, if necessary.

*sigh* Sometimes I wonder why I'm not in charge of everything.

Lelac Almagor said...

Melinda, the sort of guiding-through you experienced in college seems like an expanding and enriching of the text, not a narrowing of it -- like reading a copy with extensive footnotes and someone's handwritten exclamations in the margin. Imagine if your professors had instead simply told you their own short version of "what happens" and "what he's trying to say" in the Inferno. Would it have become one of your books then? And would you have decided to go ahead and struggle through the original anyway -- or would all that extra complexity have seemed even more superfluous?

Melinda said...

Believe it or not, college is still out of the question for a lot of people. There still aren't many people in my family that go to college; most of us work in the trades. They might not get the kick that I got from Dante, or indeed, from anything else in the Intro to Lit class.

I did get a lot of help from a good teacher; later, I persuaded another teacher to teach Dante in his medieval lit class because nobody else was teaching Dante. But not everybody has that advantage.

If we'd had Cliff Notes when I was in high school, and I'd known about them, I would have picked one up. That really would have helped me. Sometimes if you want to learn and you don't have a lot of money, you have to take what you can get. For some, abridgements will have to do until you can work your way through the real thing.

Summer Institute NCS said...
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Lelac Almagor said...

I didn't mean to imply that money for college is the only right way to get a guided reading of a book. Only that if a student came to me and asked, How can I help myself read this difficult book I'd love to get to know, then I would recommend a footnoted edition or a companion, not an abridgement, for the reasons I described earlier. Taking what you can get doesn't seem to me to pertain here.

rindambyers said...

Well, speaking of A Bridge Too Far...I have this to say about being a dyslexic reader: Homeschooled far, far away, and I mean far away from public schools in the U.S., dyslexia was uheard of when I was little. No one knew I had it.

I painstakingly taught myself to read by memorizing word after word after word, absorbing meanings through context. Math was a hideous endeavor; I could not read equations or numbers. My mother tried phonetics, a few times, and oh, the tears! Painful for us both. Once word shapes were memorized,though, I started gulping in familiar senteneces and word linkage and now read very, very fast. Always scored very high in vocabulary. Still terrible with numbers and music scores.

But I wanted to read so badly. I kept trying and trying and trying...the books wouldn't leave me be. And I won! I was able to get into books at last!

I had few "children's" books. We were too poor.I read adult books, anything available. I skipped the things that bored me and re-read the parts I loved. The things I didn't understand, that were "too above" me, I wondered about, asked questions about, tried to find out more about.

The Classics comic books, which I loved, too, introduced me to many classics I didn't have. But I always got back to to the book. I still do always, always go back to the book.

My parents, fundamentalist, evangelicals that they are, never worried about what I read. Only that I would hurt my eyes. I'm glad they didn't buy me abridged books.

Don't you WISH every child had the freedom I had as a child? To have had so few books but so much freedom?