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May 7, 2007 9:12 PM   Subscribe

“We realised that life is too short to read all the books you want to and we never were going to read these ones.” Research confirmed that “many regular readers think of the classics as long, slow and, to be frank, boring. You’re not supposed to say this but I think that one of the reasons Jane Austen always does so well in reader polls is that her books aren’t that long”.

The first six titles in the Compact Editions series are Anna Karenina, Vanity Fair, David Copperfield, The Mill on the Floss, Moby Dick and Wives and Daughters. Each has been whittled down to about 400 pages by cutting 30 to 40 per cent of the text. Words, sentences, paragraphs and, in a few cases, chapters have been removed.

“We realised that life is too short to read all the books you want to and we never were going to read these ones.”
posted by four panels (270 comments total) 21 users marked this as a favorite

 
I'd rather die first.

Oh, wait.
posted by YamwotIam at 9:17 PM on May 7, 2007


Compact books
posted by ColdChef at 9:18 PM on May 7, 2007


wasn't cliff's notes doing this ages ago? plus, what are these book things you're talking about?
posted by andywolf at 9:19 PM on May 7, 2007


400 pages? You keep using this word 'compact'. It does not mean what you think it means.
posted by graventy at 9:21 PM on May 7, 2007 [1 favorite]


What a shame....

Although if they wouldn't read them at all otherwise, maybe this is the only way.
posted by BlackLeotardFront at 9:23 PM on May 7, 2007


This is not a new idea by any means; there have been abridged books ever since there have been books.

The tagline "all the story in half the time" pretty much sums it up. Who reads books for the "story"? Are you somehow better off in life because you can summarize Moby Dick?
posted by roll truck roll at 9:23 PM on May 7, 2007


I really wanted this to be a hoax when I clicked on the link. I'd much rather admit to not having read a book than admit to having read the compressed version.

The description of their version of Moby Dick reads:

" Moby Dick covers subjects such as racism, hierarchical relationships, politics, good and evil. None of this is lost in the Compact Edition. What have been cut are lengthy descriptions of whaling history and whales and some philosophical observations and reflections...."

How can you cut the descriptions of whaling history and the philosophical observations? One of the most interesting things about Moby Dick is how it veers from narrative to philosophising to discussions of how to catagorize whales, or why white is the color of evil.

Cutting this stuff out of Moby Dick is like cutting the footnotes, or the rambling drug scenes out of Infinite Jest.
posted by pombe at 9:24 PM on May 7, 2007 [2 favorites]


Do they really want to go there?
posted by ormondsacker at 9:25 PM on May 7, 2007


Isn't this the very same idea that the Reader's Digest empire was built on? The idea that enabled them to invade every medical waiting room in the known universe?
posted by MrVisible at 9:25 PM on May 7, 2007 [3 favorites]


...life is too short to read all the books you want to and we never were going to read these ones...

So we thought we'd pretend.
posted by taosbat at 9:26 PM on May 7, 2007 [8 favorites]


Sigh.
posted by kyrademon at 9:28 PM on May 7, 2007


On further reflection, it strikes me that this is a way for publishers to re-copyright works that have gone into public domain.

Not a criticism, really. Just an observation.
posted by roll truck roll at 9:28 PM on May 7, 2007 [3 favorites]


I can't relate to this. Moby Dick is a page-turner. I highly recommend it to anybody. The philosophical discussions of whales are some of the best parts. If all you want is the plot, for some silly reason, just wait and watch the movie or the cartoon.
posted by vacapinta at 9:30 PM on May 7, 2007


I've just now invented a word for this. "Abridgment". No, it's not about bridges. It's from Latin. Or Greek.

On another note, why bother reading them if you're not going to read the whole thing? Are they going to do this with Ulysses? I'd fucking love to see that.
posted by stavrogin at 9:30 PM on May 7, 2007 [2 favorites]


Who reads books for the "story"?

I must be missing something here. Huh?
posted by Malor at 9:31 PM on May 7, 2007


This is wrong. And what's more, I think that

[redacted]

and so you see, having seen all these examples, why this is a terrible idea and should be discontinued.
posted by exlotuseater at 9:31 PM on May 7, 2007 [15 favorites]


Maybe they'll do the Bible next.
posted by popechunk at 9:33 PM on May 7, 2007 [3 favorites]


The first time I read about this I frothed at the mouth and rended my clothes. But then I remembered the hundreds and hundreds of pages Tolstoy spent on Levin's theories of Russian agriculture in Anna Karenina and I sort of understood where they're coming from...

I'd still reread the version with agricultural theorizing, mind you, but I'd waver in my faith somewhere around page the fifty-sixth page of the eighth dissertation on what to do about the plight of Russian peasantry in the 19th Century.
posted by Kattullus at 9:34 PM on May 7, 2007


I think this quote from the article sums it up rather nicely:
“How can you edit the classics? I’m afraid reading some of these books is hard work, which is why you have to develop as a reader. If people don’t have time to read Anna Karenina, then fine. But don’t read a shortened version and kid yourself it’s the real thing.”
There's no point in editing a classic work for time, whether it's a book, a film, a piece of music, or whatever. What do you take out? Most likely, anything not immediately relevant to the main theme, which is pointless because we're all familiar with the main themes of the classics -- so familiar in fact that many of the classics have become caricatures of themselves in most people's minds.

Reading a dumbed-down, streamlined version that doesn't stray far from what the reader already thinks he or she knows won't accomplish anything except to make a bunch of pseudo-intellectuals a bit more self-satisfied than they already are.

Which, from the publisher's point of view, is probably fine.

I'll shut up now.
posted by Ickster at 9:35 PM on May 7, 2007 [1 favorite]


I watched the movie.
posted by Artw at 9:35 PM on May 7, 2007


Er, after a quick scanthrough, not that I'm knocking Volume 159 of the Reader's Digest Condensed series, which was instrumental in bringing a groundbreaking and important work to the masses.
posted by ormondsacker at 9:35 PM on May 7, 2007


Who are they to steal the words out of the dead great's mouths?
posted by Kudos at 9:39 PM on May 7, 2007


Wait, that's the other Jessamyn. Argh, argh, sorry, I'll slink off now. Damnit.
posted by ormondsacker at 9:44 PM on May 7, 2007


We've seen this conversation on MeFi before, I think.

As I recall, some folks thought, like BLF and Katullus, above, that there might be some merit in culling some sections if it enabled folks to read what they might not have, otherwise.

And some purists thought that the very idea of culling a chapter or passage from a classic is a heresy, akin to deleting a couple of the Apostles from da Vinci's Last Supper.

I seem to recall there was no consensus achieved.

For my own part, portions of Moby Dick were luminously resonant, like divine music, while others were like being pecked to death by ducks. Ditto for War and Peace, the Silmarillion, etc. I don't think the tedious passages necessarily contributed much (or much critical, anyway) to my appreciation of the overall works. But that was just my own experience.
posted by darkstar at 9:45 PM on May 7, 2007


What Ickster said. Also, I suspect much of the reason for people's not reading these things is the sheer intimidation factor (and terrible preparation by our current educational system) of reading THE GREATS or some such. Once you get going, much of THE GREATS is really not all that hard, especially if you're just reading it for enjoyment and passing interest and not planning to write a dissertation on it.
posted by gignomai at 9:45 PM on May 7, 2007


Very clever, four panels, the way you repeated your words in the post. I get it: you added unnecessary words as a kind of verbal monument, a symbolic stand against unneeded editing.
posted by Kraftmatic Adjustable Cheese at 9:46 PM on May 7, 2007


Moby Dick is a page-turner. I highly recommend it to anybody. The philosophical discussions of whales are some of the best parts. If all you want is the plot, for some silly reason, just wait and watch the movie or the cartoon.
posted by vacapinta at 9:30 PM on May 7 [+] [!]


I don't really recommend the cartoon either, if plot is what you're after. (But it is, thankfully, NOT OFFENSIVE.)
posted by maryh at 9:49 PM on May 7, 2007


Very clever, four panels.
pstd by KAC @ 12A 5/8

posted by stavrogin at 9:50 PM on May 7, 2007


I have read those six books at full-length.
This is why I'm well-read: I'm well-read because I am fly -- you "aint," because you are not.
posted by Methylviolet at 9:51 PM on May 7, 2007 [3 favorites]


Fuck it. Let's just do six word summaries of everything. (à la this post)

I'll go first.

Goethe—Faust: Jaded academic conjures Mephistopheles, tragedy ensues.

Dante—Commedia: Up through Hell, Purgatory, Heaven... Beatrice!

Milton—Paradise Lost: They ate some fruit, ruined everything.

Valmiki—The Ramayana: Exiled, traveling south, Rama beats Ravana.

Spiegelman—Maus: Holocaust; Mice are good, Cats bad.

Hawking—A Brief History of Time: BIG BANG! Then things cool down.

Oh yes, this is much easier. I could read everything this way.
posted by exlotuseater at 9:53 PM on May 7, 2007 [4 favorites]


Whatever happened to skimming over the flat bits yourself?
posted by Abiezer at 9:56 PM on May 7, 2007 [7 favorites]


Playing devil's advocate here, but how many of you railing against this have read a book in translation? the same sort of argument can be levelled there: that the cadence, subtle nuances of idiomatic turns of phrase are lost or dumbed down if you read something in anything other than the original language, but if you read a translated War and Peace, you still consider yourself to have read it, no?
posted by juv3nal at 9:59 PM on May 7, 2007 [1 favorite]


I read The Count of Monte Cristo unabridged one summer in high school. There were long, rambling descriptions that did nothing for me, and the whole island kingdom thing cut a lot of momentum between the escape and the return. And I didn't really know what hash was at the time, so that was, huh?

But that's the book. It all counts. It all adds up to the ultimate philosophical implosion of the Count. All these little details, the contrast of the little daily tortures in the first half against the little extravagances later on before the big climax and denouement, it all makes the story what it is. The abridged versions are shorter, and less; sure, you can get the plot, and much of what's there, but you don't get the same book.
posted by cortex at 10:00 PM on May 7, 2007


But don’t read a shortened version and kid yourself it’s the real thing.

I don't think any kidding is going on. If you have literary social circles, reading even a shortened version will suffice to change a boring discussion on a topic about which you know nothing, to an interesting discussion on a subject where you have a reasonable, if limited grasp, and [this is the bit that may stick in the craw of lit snobs] will probably even be able to make some insightful contributions of your own.

No-one takes the full text from a book, even when reading the full text. You take from a book the things that appeal to you. An abridged book means a modern editor has played a larger role in shaping what you take from it. Sometimes that means you'll get less, sometimes it means you get more. The role and contribution of editing is something people underestimate. Of course, if their editing is crap, well, the results will be crappy.
posted by -harlequin- at 10:02 PM on May 7, 2007 [5 favorites]


This got me thinking. It is certainly a conceit to think that one can improve the classics. But I think it is also a conceit to suggest that the classics can't be improved.
No invention is perfect, and many of the things closest to perfection are those things successively honed over generations.
posted by -harlequin- at 10:04 PM on May 7, 2007 [2 favorites]


juv3nal - I've translated books myself between two very different languages.
No, it's not the same thing, of course. Sometimes you really do lose things. But you do your best to reproduce the spirit of the piece in good faith.
This seems to be a different process - taking away things the author put in, rather that rendering what they wrote to the best of your ability with a different toolset.
posted by Abiezer at 10:08 PM on May 7, 2007


She added: “I am guilty of never having read Anna Karenina, because it’s just so long. I’d much rather read two 300-page books than one 600-page book.”

Personally, I'd much rather read 600 one-page books.
posted by slantedAtlantic at 10:08 PM on May 7, 2007


I'm going to start selling animated gifs of the classics. Who's with me?
posted by goatdog at 10:09 PM on May 7, 2007


Playing devil's advocate here, but how many of you railing against this have read a book in translation?

But that's the facts of life. If I could read Italian, I'd read Dante; instead, I'm stuck with Ciardi (which I really like) or another translation, along with whatever I can learn about the translation as compared with others and the original.

And it kills me that the only translation of Solaris is a goddam third-hand port from French. But again, no Polish.

For that matter, it's only through extra effort that someone who is not a scholar of previous centuries can really get aspects of classic lit in their native language—both from usage shift and cultural changes.

So yes: there are cases where the book you're reading may not be so much the book that was written. But the difference between the accessibility of a fluency in a foreign language (or hundreds of years of usage and cultural change) and the accessibility of reading an extra couple hundred pages is huge.
posted by cortex at 10:10 PM on May 7, 2007


I have had serious dreams of publishers just stopping for a year or so that I might have time to catch up.
posted by YoBananaBoy at 10:13 PM on May 7, 2007


I wish there was some kind of pill I could take that would help me to instantly learn languages and catch up on all of my reading. Because really... not enough time in life. Dang.
posted by miss lynnster at 10:23 PM on May 7, 2007


The September SpecialSkinCare Issue of Vogue was around 600 pages and I got through it in a jif.
You guys are wussies.
posted by Dizzy at 10:24 PM on May 7, 2007 [1 favorite]


Are they going to do this with Ulysses? I'd fucking love to see that.

Seconded. That would actually be kind of brilliant in of itself. While we're taking requests, I'd like an abridged edition of Cent mille milliards de poèmes myself. Maybe they could whittle it down to twenty or so?
posted by phooky at 10:26 PM on May 7, 2007 [1 favorite]


If they were just taking the makeup ads out of these books, no one would be complaining, Dizzy.
posted by stavrogin at 10:26 PM on May 7, 2007


Oh, you twats.
posted by Firas at 10:30 PM on May 7, 2007 [1 favorite]


Add some scentstrips to "Lady Chatterley's Lover" and I don't care how long it takes to read the damn thing.
posted by Dizzy at 10:31 PM on May 7, 2007


God is a scentillating liver? I just met her up the Livy and let live.
posted by freebird at 10:31 PM on May 7, 2007


scentillating liver?

You brought her to the party.
posted by cortex at 10:34 PM on May 7, 2007


The Virgin Suicides by Jeffrey Eugenides

Oh, you twats.

The End.
posted by stavrogin at 10:38 PM on May 7, 2007 [2 favorites]


How did God's liver end up as appetizers?
posted by taosbat at 10:39 PM on May 7, 2007


You guys are holding up non-abridged reading as some sort of magical potion that ensures that the reader collapses in writhing ecstacy of revelation that an abridged version doesn't proffer (specifically the part about pseudo-intellectualism.) Think about how wantonly juvenile that attitude is. There are all sorts of levels to a text and all sorts of ways for readers to respond to it. You could continue reading a single text all your life and come up with a bazillion different issues it raises. I don't understand why one reading of the 'full version' of a book is a discrete intellectual injection compared to one reading of this abridged version or reading the full version twice.

It's a fairly mystical take on the matter. Don't get all romantic on me and be like ah, that's the mystery of literature. The conventions of the time, the price per word of the publisher, whether the writer was feeling sick or sunny on that particular day, etc. etc. all play into the text. The author is just human after all. Understanding that is more properly appreciating the mystery of the collective written conscience. Fetishizing the discrete unit of a book disserves the magic of ideas.
posted by Firas at 10:47 PM on May 7, 2007 [10 favorites]


Lemme know when there's an abridged version of this thread. I just kinda skimmed it.
posted by ZachsMind at 10:51 PM on May 7, 2007 [2 favorites]


It's a fairly mystical take on the matter.

I remember when I was younger, reading Virginia Woolf, how her sentences reached into my mind like probing fingers.
posted by taosbat at 10:55 PM on May 7, 2007


Even shorter books.
posted by Pockets at 11:00 PM on May 7, 2007 [1 favorite]


Think about how wantonly juvenile that attitude is.

Bah. Reading the book is different than reading the pieces of the book deemed by a third party to be The Good Bits. It's not magic, it's just so. A friend of mine burnt me half of an album once, on the the principle that the other half wasn't worth listening to, and I couldn't fucking believe it. The other six songs may have been utter shit, but the album is what the band put out, and I'd like to actually listen to that and make up my own mind.

William Goldman's conceit about abridging The Princess Bride works both because the bits he describes as being elided send up the sprawling excess of some lit and because it's disappointing that we'll never get to actually see those fictional elisions ourselves.

The original, complete work isn't a magical fairy potion, but it is what the author produced. Just because Dickens padded for wordcount doesn't mean books in general don't lose something on abridgment.
posted by cortex at 11:04 PM on May 7, 2007


I don't know... I can see both sides. In a sense, this adds another option for the potential consumer of literature.

The truth is (heaven forbid anyone admit this) that many, many of the canonized classics are boring as all hell. Not all of them by a long shot, but there are passages of many of the "classics of western literature" that are just flat out boring, with the pacing of an earlier era.

We live in a faster paced era. Isn't it better for some people (not the literate people on MeFi, God forbid we'd suggest such a thing), but *some* people who would like to consume some of these great stories to be able to get them with the boring bits left out?

You know, like in the Princess Bride, when all the mushy love stuff and the geography and history stuff was left out by the grandfather, and only the good parts left in....

Yes, what is being consumed doesn't have the complete contents of the original, but it has a heck of a lot more than the cliffs notes (I mean, these are *still* 400 page books), and will broaden the minds of the readers more than not reading at all, but not as much as reading the original.

It's the non-fat version, if you will.

Just to be Devil's Advocate.
posted by MythMaker at 11:04 PM on May 7, 2007


Shorter: You guys are . . . the magic of ideas.

Ok, maybe that's not completely fair, and I admit that especially lately, having had to plow through an immense amount of stuff, I have skimmed some of it.

It's just that the "magic of ideas" is made manifest in the whole thing, not a capsule summary or even a version that's had the "fat" cut off.

The "fat" is as important to that magic as any other part.
posted by exlotuseater at 11:05 PM on May 7, 2007


I really have no problem with abridged books. I find many "classics" to be very long-winded and, yes, boring. Of course, an abridged version may inspire me to read a non-abridged book.

In any case, I enjoy reading but I rarely go for a book that is over 250 pages. I read SO much for work that I simply am not enticed by a 700 page "classic."

My favorite author is Maupassant -- largely because I find his short stories so rich and fulfilling.
posted by pwedza at 11:08 PM on May 7, 2007


Firas -- it's not that I necessarily think that the original will surely be better than the "abridged" version in terms of its effect on the reader. I'm sure there are a number of people out there who might be more affected by an abridged version for one reason or another. But the original War and Peace is clearly far superior to an abridged version at being War and Peace.
posted by gignomai at 11:09 PM on May 7, 2007


The "fat" is as important to that magic as any other part.

Yeah? How does Mary Shelley droning on and on in Frankenstein about the hills and lakes of Europe help me appreciate the myth better? It might as well have been set in a desert. She was writing about nature just because it was the style of the time.

gignomai: oh, I'll accept that the original version of a book is a 'better' version of the book than the abridged version. I'm just railing against the argument that goes along the lines of: "if you won't read the original, don't read the thing at all." I realize that I'm lumping a lot of different opinions together, but basically, if you think the world is better off if the mentioned effort wasn't undertaken, then I'm talking to you. Reader X and Reader Y react in totally different ways to Text A, so it's difficult to argue that objectively your intellect will be stimulated by Text A in a manner that is impossible and morally superior to that of a derivation of Text A.

Reading this version doesn't preclude anyone from picking up the 'full' version; no, if they like it, they probably will.
posted by Firas at 11:18 PM on May 7, 2007 [1 favorite]


I've always found the entire notion of reading-as-self-improvement to be so comically capitalist. But if there's really a market for assuaging children's guilt over having not done their homework the ideal product shouldn't lower the bar (gold stars suck when everybody has one), it ought to change the assignment. I'm thinking something like an 'in depth tour' of these novels, kinda like those package Paris deals, something that people could read and feel good and brag to their friends who would then also be forced to go out and buy the same thing. Call it something sufficiently pretentious, maybe like Moby Dick, Distilled and get somebody respectable like Penguin to move it and give it an all black cover cover except for a kind of story-related logo. Maybe make it big enough so customers could stick it in their bookcase and it could be spotted from across the room.
posted by nixerman at 11:29 PM on May 7, 2007


A classic isn’t a classic because of the plot, or the subjects, or the philosophical reflections, or the historical observations. It’s the sum of all these things, put together by an author who was (usually) considered a master of their craft in that era. What I enjoy most about reading a classic is struggling through the first few chapters but finally falling into step with the language and tempo of the author. The tempo is (usually) much, much slower, but it kind of lets you take a peek back in time and observe how people of the day spoke, wrote and absorbed information. Its fascinating, and IMHO the only reason to read a classic. Cut that out and what are you left with? Some nut relentlessly chasing a whale until he falls overboard. Fuck that noise. I’d rather rent Jaws.
posted by BostonJake at 11:42 PM on May 7, 2007 [2 favorites]


I've been reading a lot of classics lately. In fact, I read them almost exclusively now because they're just way better written than modern fiction. But I refuse to read any abridged texts and I carefully research translations so that I am getting the one most closely comparable to the original text - often one written near the time when the original came out. This is because I know, yes, I know that the original is the best. Any editing or modernizing other than what is absolutely necessary to make something readable is, in my mind, an insult to the original and a concession to laziness or stupidity.

I know that editing or modernizing are harmful because:
- The full text contains the edited text. Anything to be gotten from the edited text can be gotten from the full text, but not vice versa. If you can't handle the full text, then that's that.
- Modernizing, other than correcting spelling, incorrectly recontextualizes the work. The original work has a time and place in history, and that is part of the work. Removing that, or softening it by simplifying the language, updating phrases, etc, is dumbing it down by doing the readers' thinking for them.

I realize that this sounds both musty and elitist, but I am both of those things when it comes to literature, and I hate the idea of classic works being sacrificed on the altar of convenience.
posted by BlackLeotardFront at 11:43 PM on May 7, 2007 [1 favorite]


You’re not supposed to say this but I think that one of the reasons Jane Austen always does so well in reader polls is that her books aren’t that long

This may be true. The other reason Jane Austen does so well in reader polls is that she is just so brilliantly, sparklingly, deliciously, wickedly perfect that people can't help but vote for her. Some books are just so good that even being declared classics can't take the fun out of them.

Also: I don't care what everyone else in the world says, the bizarre lectures on crackpot theories of history and philosophy are some of the best parts of War and Peace.
posted by moss at 11:47 PM on May 7, 2007 [1 favorite]


What? They're taking away my right to be pecked to death by ducks?

What next?
posted by ikkyu2 at 11:49 PM on May 7, 2007 [1 favorite]


People should read little synopses, a little literary review and decide what to read then. I say this in the hope that no one else will ever bother with Sister Carrie.
posted by Ambrosia Voyeur at 11:50 PM on May 7, 2007


The big problem with these books is that even if they're classics, they're not that entertaining (well most of em). Most (but not all) people like to read book to relax/pass the time. They don't want to be bored!

These books are terrible for novice/younger readers and they should never be given to any student to read (I'm not talking about people studying litterature). They're the best way to turn people off reading forever. Give people interesting/easy things to read so they can get a taste for it and they'll move by themselves to more serious/hard stuff when they're ready.

I'm so glad I had started to read books before they forced me to read the classics (or teacher's favorite) in HS and College, I wanted to kill myself while reading some of those books, especially knowing that I'd had to read them again to complete my dissertation. If I hadn't started to read before that I would have thought: "this is it, books are boring and a waste of time, no more reading for me". I've find that most lit teachers are really into it and actually really like the books they're asking their students to read, but most students really hated em.

But I don't see the point in the abridged versions, if you find those books boring stop reading them and read something else, they won't suddenly enlighten you.
posted by coust at 11:54 PM on May 7, 2007 [3 favorites]


BLF, I don't think that reading a translation produced closer in time to the original is necessarily better. In fact, I think it may often be worse. More recent translations usually benefit from having other translations to work with/compare, a greater understanding of the issues involved in translating a work from a different language, a more nuanced understanding of the culture in which the original was produced, and greater awareness of the translator's own baggage in the translation. Late 20th century translations of Dostoevsky, for example, tend to be a lot better at reproducing the nuances of the language, rather than the more stilted ones from early in the century. The issue is even more pronounced with older works. Many Renaissance translations of the classic Greek works are beautiful pieces of literature, but you'd be hard pressed to say they were any "closer" to the work than modern translations. They are saddled with all sorts of cultural and stylistic baggage and were unapologetic about adding and redacting huge amounts of material to serve their own agendas. I've also heard that the recent retranslations of Proust are the best yet. So, recent translation =! bad translation.
posted by papakwanz at 12:03 AM on May 8, 2007


I read Moby Dick. I found just about every page to be tedious. I read it simply out of an obligation I felt to finish it. I read it because everybody raves about what a classic work it was, so I thought that maybe I was just missing something.

In reality though, I found the whole thing pretty boring. I might not have chosen to read an abridged version because if you're going to do it, you may as well do the full thing, but I don't see anything wrong with having that option for those that want it.

Just because they offer an abridged version, that doesn't mean the full thing isn't out there for people who would prefer that. How can more choices ever be bad?
posted by willnot at 12:04 AM on May 8, 2007 [4 favorites]


If you are going to read an abridged, I recommend this one.
posted by PeterMcDermott at 12:07 AM on May 8, 2007


Oops. That should be this one.
posted by PeterMcDermott at 12:09 AM on May 8, 2007


MORE SIX WORD SUMMARIES

The Stranger: Killed Arab; does it really matter?

Macbeth: Prophecies misled me, temptation's ruined all!

Girl, Interrupted: Sanity's no virtue; Life's a BITCH.
posted by Firas at 12:31 AM on May 8, 2007


If you have to abridge, abridge by annotation, not (the sin of) omission: get a great contemporary author (not just some weasel at, in this case, Orion Group) to edit a book that the contemporary author loves greatly, and to indicate (by some sort of marginal code) which sections are essential to a first reading of the book, which sections are particularly fine for any reader, etc. The lazy reader could read only the sections with, say, a thin red vertical line running down the margin and skip the sections with no such line. A double red line might indicate a place the contemporary author-editor thinks particularly fine, something no reader should just skim.

And have endnotes, damn it; make the books longer. Explain things to the simple reader, so that the simple reader becomes a better reader and is not simply bored by his or her own inability to understand and appreciate great books.
posted by pracowity at 12:34 AM on May 8, 2007


- The full text contains the edited text. Anything to be gotten from the edited text can be gotten from the full text, but not vice versa

This is not meaningfully true, and IMO indicates that you don't understand the contribution of editors.
posted by -harlequin- at 12:34 AM on May 8, 2007


If I could see this book condensed it would be amazing.
posted by BostonJake at 12:45 AM on May 8, 2007


In the abridged audio version of "Moby Dick," John Bonham's solo is reduced to a three second drumroll, followed by a brief cymbal crash.
posted by First Post at 12:54 AM on May 8, 2007 [3 favorites]


The tempo is (usually) much, much slower

I see what you did there, you tipped your hat at the topic by leaving out about six "muches".
posted by markr at 1:10 AM on May 8, 2007


"It involves Russia."
posted by dong_resin at 1:27 AM on May 8, 2007


I would be tempted to buy these out of sheer contrariness and inverted snobbery if I weren't holding out for the same titles to be converted into science fiction movies.
posted by teleskiving at 1:52 AM on May 8, 2007 [1 favorite]


I mean, practically speaking, do any of you really think that anyone would pick up an abridged version of Moby Dick for any other reason than to self-indulgently tell themselves that they've pretty much read Moby Dick?
posted by gignomai at 1:53 AM on May 8, 2007


If you are going to read an abridged, I recommend this one.

Nice, but still too much work. (I used to love that show.)

Actually, I'm okay with cutting some stuff out of Moby Dick just as long as they leave the recipes in.

Clam or Cod?
posted by Opposite George at 1:57 AM on May 8, 2007


I'm sure the question on everybody's mind is really

"Did they take the songs out of Tolkien?"
posted by TwoWordReview at 2:22 AM on May 8, 2007


σύνθεσις , mofo, do you understand it ? You must go to the point, directly to the point. Speak what you mean, what gives ? Must snap, people must "get it" you got it. 'stand ? Less is better, fast live, ain't got time you must become rich or die trying ! No time for silly shit. Look at me, I explain with synthesis and speak my shit fast. Stand up ! Sit down ! Good Doggie ! Ain't no acronym short enough for me ! IOU ? No , YOM ! No speaking ILY just bend over already ! Just cut the words gimme mah bling ! Cause I am ALL ABOUT SYNTHESIS and keeping shit short, I am all over it and I mad clear ! Keepin it real ! Can you see it works ?
posted by elpapacito at 2:25 AM on May 8, 2007 [2 favorites]


do any of you really think that anyone would pick up an abridged version of Moby Dick for any other reason than to self-indulgently tell themselves that they've pretty much read Moby Dick?

And if you're going to read an abridged version at all, are you going to read a 400-page abridgment or are you going to hold out for the 40-page condensation with a list of choice quotations and conversation starters? Who is X (ignorant? dumb? lazy? busy?) enough to need an abridgment but not X enough to be put off by a 400-page abridgment?
posted by pracowity at 2:26 AM on May 8, 2007 [1 favorite]


Any time this argument is raised, in any medium, there are always a ton of people who jump on the 'classics are perfect and untouchable' bandwagon. Personally, I think that's bullshit.

For example, the serial novels like some of Dickens and Dumas. These were heavily padded for wordcount. If those guys were around today, I bet they'd be making abridgements on a moneyspinning 'Director's Cut'. And I also bet that the same 'classics are perfect' crowd would then all rush to defend those new versions. There's plenty to criticise in many of the classics, and abridgement wouldn't hurt some of them.
posted by Jakey at 2:27 AM on May 8, 2007


Yeah? How does Mary Shelley droning on and on in Frankenstein about the hills and lakes of Europe help me appreciate the myth better? It might as well have been set in a desert. She was writing about nature just because it was the style of the time.

Firas: This is precisely why one should have access to the full version. What do you do if the editor of the shortened version decides that the writing about nature is actually the most important part? As you yourself stated, texts have many complex levels and elicit many kinds of interest. By abridging, you're *removing* people's agency in discovering what levels appeal to them.

With abridged versions, you never know what was cut out; you might dislike a book, and then discover later that the interesting parts were cut. Or, even worse, you might like a book, and then have to reread the complete work to get the parts you missed.

And in addition, what if [shock!] the plot of a work of literature is the least interesting part of a work of literature, but rather a skeleton for what makes a work truly interesting? What would Hamlet be without monologuing characters?

Buying abridged books is like paying for crippleware, under the impression that it's superior.
posted by honest knave at 2:43 AM on May 8, 2007


and also: pracowity-- bravo! I love the idea of abridgement by annotation.

Or use Stretchtext.
posted by honest knave at 2:45 AM on May 8, 2007


It depends what you want to get out of a book. Some people are very plot focused, frequently they prefer a story with a protagonist they can identify with. Fair enough. The classics are mostly going to be poor choices for them. It's been some years since I read it, but I think Joyce's, "Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man" talks about Aquinas' view that a story which pulls you in to identify with one character is pornographic. There is something to this. It's not just in modernism or other recent art movements, most great literature forces you into some sort of critical distance away from the story. I think this has a lot to do with the charges of 'boring'. The authors aren't trying to constantly stimulate you with some sort of "OK OK now picture you're doing THIS..." story line.

So, the whole idea of cutting them back to pander to that sensibility is silly. If what you want is genre fiction, and of course there's nothing wrong with that, then read genre fiction.

Classics are classics because in some ways the style of the book stands out. By style I mean its presentation as a whole. A plot can not stand out since anyone else can use it. 'Band of brothers' go around, talk shit and kick ass is a pretty common template, it has been used since the dawn of time. The Iliad distinguishes itself in its atmosphere, contrast of characters, repetitions, depth of feeling, the great ideas lurking in the background and a host of other ways. No other retelling of the story of Troy, and there have been many, offers what it does; the difference in quality is always stark.

I want to understand the author as best as I can, that means approaching his understanding of his own work. To claim that there is an infinite set of readings is to miss the point. There is an infinite number of 'hearings' as well, yet still we manage to communicate distinct meanings. The author writes in order to communicate. If I don't believe that his choice of words is deliberate in conveying that meaning, then what makes him a great writer?

Improved. What does improved mean? Does anyone claim that they can improve the expression of the author's mind? What a foolish conceit. Perhaps they mean improve the number of copies that the title sells. Maybe they can, but it's a meager goal.
posted by BigSky at 2:51 AM on May 8, 2007


This reminds me of another six-word précis of an unquestioned masterpiece, The Marriage of Figaro. Austrian Emperor Josef II is supposed to have remarked: "Zu viele Noten, mein lieber Mozart" (Too many notes, my dear Mozart).

Consider the source.
posted by rob511 at 2:57 AM on May 8, 2007


Stephen King released an extended version of The Stand that sold more than the original.

The garguantuan Wheel of Time series was a best seller.

I don't think length is the problem.
posted by empath at 3:28 AM on May 8, 2007 [3 favorites]


“We realised that life is too short to read all the books you want to

What the FUCK? You've got fucking fourscore and ten, dudes. That's kind of a long time. How goddamn hard is it to fit a few novels into that? Jesus Christ, what lazy pieces of crap.
posted by Greg Nog at 4:01 AM on May 8, 2007 [1 favorite]


Most contemporary novels come pre-packaged with their own suitable abridgment. It's called jacket copy, and nine times out of ten it's all you need.
posted by Lentrohamsanin at 4:02 AM on May 8, 2007 [1 favorite]


Many classics are sold abridged as a matter of course, for example The Rise and Decline of the Roman Empire is typically abridged. A large percentage of books on tape are abridged. Many translations are abridged, for example "Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea" was translated into English soon after it came out and was abridged - not until the 1980s was a full English translation finally made available.

I have no problem with tasteful abridgment of 19th century works. They were usually very long because people lived a different pace of life. They often contained lengthy treaties on political subjects that are no longer relevant (except from a literary-history viewpoint). The question is, can you trust the abridger to do a good job? That is what most people have a problem with, third-party intervention. If the abridger had a name and reputation, like an editor, it would help.

Finally, if you read 10 abridged works and really like 3 of them, you can always go back and re-read the full work and get a second chance at discovering something new. Anything to keep people reading and reading more is a good thing.
posted by stbalbach at 4:07 AM on May 8, 2007 [1 favorite]


They were usually very long because people lived a different pace of life.

= they didn't sit in front of the television every night of the week. Their lives were faster paced.

The question is, can you trust the abridger to do a good job? That is what most people have a problem with, third-party intervention.

That is indeed the problem. If Dickens were to cut Bleak House to 400 pages, I would be happy to read it. But Dickens is still dead and the only one around at the publisher to edit Dickens is this guy:
Michael Slater is Professor of Victorian Literature at Birkbeck College in the University of London. He was editor of The Dickensian (1968-77) and President of the International Dickens Fellowship (1988-90). He has published many books and articles on Dickens.
There can be few better qualified to edit Dickens. I would love to read Slater's commentary on Bleak House. But I wouldn't want him to cut the bits that he thinks might bore us.
posted by pracowity at 4:42 AM on May 8, 2007 [1 favorite]


Yes, what is being consumed doesn't have the complete contents of the original, but it has a heck of a lot more than the cliffs notes (I mean, these are *still* 400 page books), and will broaden the minds of the readers more than not reading at all, but not as much as reading the original.

Heh, abridged intellectuals...
posted by c13 at 5:07 AM on May 8, 2007


Let me "summarise" my thoughts on this: you people are all fucking idiots.

Basically, it's true that the longer the book, the smarter the reader. So all you poindexters who are currently sitting on a well-thumbed copy of War and Peace or the Mahabharat or the complete Left Behind series can keep on smirkin', knowing that you are indeed a more worthwhile human being than Joe Mediocre.

HOWEVER, I'm taking this basic premise to the extreme and have started reading extra-long editions of some key works: "Ulysses - the day after," "Moby Dick and Son", "The Brothers and Sisters and Various Uncles and Some Cousins Karamazov", "A Tale of Fourteen Cities", etc.

You may bow down and worship me publically for my bulging brain-sac or simply quietly envy my superior intellectual status - I don't mind which.
posted by the quidnunc kid at 5:12 AM on May 8, 2007 [3 favorites]


My family culture was and is strongly biased toward 'Takes too long to read it? Your fault for not being a better reader. Suck it up and slog through, maybe you'll get some practice.' Abridgement is viewed with great suspicion.

But we somehow acquired a mildly abridged Les Misérables, which several of us got through, and then Dad read the unabridged, partly out of his own interest and partly as the collective manifestation of all of our anti-abridgement bloody-mindedness. He reported that the timeless stuff had not been wounded, only Mr. Hugo's application of those thoughts to the politics of his day. Which would be interesting for some, maybe even me, but I've got a much bigger interest in other things and may not get around to that aspect of France in this mortal life. So I'm grateful for that abridgement, in that it freed me up to compare important parts of Les Misérables to the Bible and The Brothers Karamazov and Daoism and whatnot.

That said, let me not palliate the pro-abridgement camp too much. Here's Bradbury rampant:
Some five years back, the editors of yet another anthology for school readers put together a volume with some 400 (count 'em) short stories in it. How do you cram 400 short stories by Twain, Irving, Poe, Maupassant and Bierce into one book?

Simplicity itself. Skin, debone, demarrow, scarify, melt, render down and destroy. Every adjective that counted, every verb that moved, every metaphor that weighed more than a mosquito - out! Every simile that would have made a sub-moron's mouth twitch - gone! Any aside that explained the two-bit philosophy of a first-rate writer - lost!

Every story, slenderized, starved, bluepenciled, leeched and bled white, resembled every other story. Twain read like Poe read like Shakespeare read like Dostoevsky read like - in the finale - Edgar Guest. Every word of more than three syllables had been razored. Every image that demanded so much as one instant's attention - shot dead.

Do you begin to get the damned and incredible picture?
(But go ahead, Ray, tell us how you really feel.)

As I am convinced that the wondrousness of Bradbury's craft, his ecstatic and emphatic wallowing in the wealth of English, would not well survive any second-rate meddler's censorshipediting, I feel bound to lay some weight upon his opinion here.
posted by eritain at 5:14 AM on May 8, 2007 [2 favorites]


The overall lesson of the last 20 years is: It's not important who you are -- what's important is who absolute strangers perceive you to be by your outward appearance.
posted by Devils Rancher at 5:24 AM on May 8, 2007


I can beat your-six word summaries with four, bitches: posted by psmealey at 5:28 AM on May 8, 2007 [2 favorites]


Don Quixote was long, but it was also easy to read, and each paragraph was a real pleasure!
posted by furtive at 5:29 AM on May 8, 2007


Anna Karenina, Moby Dick and David Copperfield are none of them long.

Reading long books doesn't make you a better person; that much I learned in graduate school.

But theese particular books are awesome, and personally, I can't imagine changing them.
posted by eustacescrubb at 5:30 AM on May 8, 2007 [1 favorite]


Maybe they'll do the Bible next.

The Christian right has already redacted the Bible.
posted by eustacescrubb at 5:32 AM on May 8, 2007


God help you if you've made it this far down the comments list, but a little (opinionated and incomplete) historical context:

In the old days (from say the Renaissance through the early 19th century), reading "classics" through wasn't the point: the Latin and to a lesser extent Greek poets and historians who made up a classical education were read for their sententiae, pithy pieces of wisdom which scholars would memorize, store in anthologies and commonplace books, and integrate into their own writings. Sort of the way many people still use the Bible today. (Samuel Johnson: "Sir, do you read books through?")

From 1500-1750 or so (broad strokes, simplified argument) if you were literate and educated you knew Latin well. The 18th century saw a mass explosion in English literacy, the book trade, and the invention of modern genres like the novel. This led to a reinterpretation, over the course of the 19th and 20th centuryies, of the concept of "classic": it no longer meant memorizing a million little bits of Horace and Virgil and quoting them at parties, it meant buying long, self-consciously prestigious and complex works in your native language (or translated into it) and reading them carefully. Flaubert invented this in France, Henry James perfected it America, and Joyce is pretty much the global past master.

Just as schoolboys have always cheated on their Latin homework, readers, in the 1-2 centuries that "classic" has had this meaning, have always cheated on the Great Books. But just as there were always schoolboys who loved learning Latin (my hero Johnson again), there have also been people (self included) who genuinely love reading the pompous stuff. Let's live and let live.
posted by sy at 5:42 AM on May 8, 2007


A couple of recent experiences:

- The Count of Monte Cristo - I picked up an abridgement that been released at the same time as the James Caviezel film and got a couple hundred pages through it before I started experiencing head-snapping dislocations due to the sudden appearance of characters from nowhere and wierd unexplained plot shifts. I tracked down an unabridged version (1400 pages vs 500 for the first one) and ultimately read through the whole thing. It took me a lot longer than the abridgement would have, but since the book is essentially ALL plot it was a lot more comprehensible and enjoyable.

-Les Miserables - I think Hugo's original manuscript must have had pages marked "begin abridgement here" and "end abridgement here". There are whole sections of 10s of pages where the plot simply goes to sleep for a while and Hugo sermonizes on Waterloo, convents, sewers, revolution in Paris or some other such shit. I wouldn't feel too bad to have read the abridgement of this one.

vis a vis Anna Karenina, is there really much fluff there? I recall a very stately paced narrative, but not a lot in the way of extraneous sidebars as in Les Miz.
posted by hwestiii at 5:42 AM on May 8, 2007


Publisher plugs abridged classics in Times, woo. What annoys me is the way the publisher projects the assumption ('You’re not supposed to say this but I think...') that people only read books in order to impress other people.
posted by Mocata at 6:04 AM on May 8, 2007


Hm, don't know why I didn't think of this earlier: Hopscotch, the self-abridging novel.
posted by phooky at 6:08 AM on May 8, 2007


hwestiii, thanks for the commentary. I had planned to read an abridged "Count of Monte" but you have dissuaded me - I gave up on "Les Miserables" 1/3 of the way through because of the political tangents so now it looks like I need to find a good abridgment.
posted by stbalbach at 6:21 AM on May 8, 2007


Here's the first commercial:

[Cue Cleveland Indians players]

"Do you know us? We're a major-league baseball team. On long bus rides from game to game, we like to read the classics, but we don't always have time to finish full-length books. That's why we recommend these."

[Players hold up abridged books. Some are upside-down]
posted by mr_crash_davis at 6:34 AM on May 8, 2007 [1 favorite]


It occurs to me that it might actually be a better business model to provide (pay per use, or per minute) access to some fancy-pants Harvard/Oxford/Sorbonne types that will give the consumer the broad strokes of the work's plot, some insightful criticims, wider applications to current events/pop culture and keen cocktail party witticisms.

I mean, after all, if you are only going to bother reading the classics just so that you can "say" that you did, why not give the people what they really want and have them avoid the torture of having to sit down and read altogether?
posted by psmealey at 6:40 AM on May 8, 2007


I'm going to start selling animated gifs of the classics. Who's with me?

Ulysses as animated GIFs.
posted by danb at 6:52 AM on May 8, 2007 [4 favorites]


"This is precisely why one should have access to the full version."

What Fahrenheit 451 do you live in? No one's going to take your stash of Dickens.

There's a high percentage of "classics" that are crap, folks. And plenty that could use abridgment (my high school wish was to just axe every goddamned one of those interstitial chapters from The Grapes of Wrath). Seriously, fuck the unabridged Les Mis— sewers sewers sewers, and take a minute to admit that most of why War and Peace is famous is because it's so long, not because it's so good.

The point upthread about kids being given a raw deal re: reading is right— I can hardly think of a book that high school lit didn't attempt to ruin for me ("And why does Dr. Jeckyl live in a house with a pointed roof? That's right, because it has three corners and symbolizes the id, ego and super-ego"). There's this medicinal view that kids have to be forced to read the canon, often taught by teachers who don't really understand why, exactly, the story is so great to begin with. And books like Crime and Punishment are made for skimming! ("What's this? Twelve pages of his nighmarish miasma? I never thought I'd look forward to the dreams where he kills horses"). And I'm sorry, both Turn of the Screw and Heart of Darkness are deadly dull for the average reader, despite containing some pretty thrilling stuff. But the constant conceit of embedded narrative and the over-wraught prose means that they're a fucking beast to plow through with any understanding. God help the 10th Grader that has New Criticism thrust on him there.
posted by klangklangston at 7:00 AM on May 8, 2007


Having read the entirety of both Notre-Dame de Paris and Les Misérables, I have to say: this is a very difficult thing to judge. 19th century novels were defined by their excesses and asides, but that doesn't mean that these were Good Things. Part of the problem with abridgments is probably that they aren't well regarded enough for there to be any kind of quality control – you don't have people really familiar with the text checking the abridgments and saying, "I really thought the section on Paris in revolutions provided much-needed context" or "Okay, I admit it reads better without the 50 page dissertation on the Parisian sewers." Some issues would be solved by making it so we get better abridgments. Sometimes the classic is so great it couldn't be abridged – but I don't think that's a universal truth.
posted by graymouser at 7:03 AM on May 8, 2007


I started to write someone about how books are butterflies and some like'm pinned under glass for study and others just want to glimpse them from a window, but I got distracted.

What distracted me was a memory. So my wife and I are the sorts of people that take please from reading in bars. Hell, our reading time can be split up into three main areas: Bar, before bed, and gym. Of the three, the former is where the books get the most attention. However, because of the other areas in which we're most likely to read, the types of books we read are limited. Popular fiction, trade paperback nonfiction, genre fiction, and maybe, maybe a dash of classics here and there are about the boundries of what we read.

So we're in a bar in the People's Republic of Cambridge (not actually the People's Republik, because they have darts) reading away when a guy sits down next to us. He has a few drinks while I work on my beer and british murder mystery paperback. You know that feeling you get in a bar when you just know that some dude is going to talk to you? We were getting that big time. He kept trying to glance at what we were reading. After his third martini, he finally asked. I showed him my book (A Place of Safety, I think, one of the books that Midsomer Murders on the BBC is based on) and he immediately dismissed it. He started listing off titles of books, obscure and laden with even more obscure prizes and fellowships.

"Listen," I said, "I'm just not interested in reading those books. I'm a recovering English Major, and besides, any book that I can't enjoy with a buzz on is not something I'm likely to read."

He said what I was reading didn't count as reading anyways. I said something in defense of genre fiction, and then he threw his drink in my face. So I smacked him in his face with my paperback book.

As he got 86'd (the bartender saw that he started it, plus being a regular has its privileges), I realized something: the dude was right. Genre fiction, those light fluffy reads that are so popular these days, can never hold up to the classics, to the canon, for sone simple reason: smacking someone with a well-thumbed paperback mystery is nowhere near as satisfying as clobbering them with a hefty annotated hardback edition. We're talking "thwap" vs "THUNK-thud" here.

So while I'll never get the impulse to look up the books he recommended and scrawled on a watery napkin, this random stranger did change my approach to reading. Now in addition to looking for good books with engaging characters and plots, I look into the battle readiness of any book I buy. I haunt the hardback remainders section of Barnes & Noble looking for stout volumes of heft and power. If I must reading a paperback, I be sure to have a hardback, or at least a Stephen King paperback with thumbtacks taped to it, nearby, because books are not butterflies.

They're weapons.
posted by robocop is bleeding at 7:16 AM on May 8, 2007 [36 favorites]


Robocop, please get to writing a full length novel (unabridged of course)
posted by TwoWordReview at 7:24 AM on May 8, 2007


In my view, the only sensible reason to read a novel is for pleasure. I generally find classics to be the most pleasurable kind of novel to read, and it saddens me that so many other people dislike reading them. I certainly can't prove that classics are "better" or even that they're "good." I also can't prove the value of Mozart, The Beatles, Cezanne, gourmet food or "Deadwood."

All I can claim is that if one's mind is prepped in particular ways, one is likely to derive intense pleasure from those items. In many cases, the prepping takes work (and it isn't always fun), but my evangelistic point is that it's SO worth it.

I don't think classics fail because they're long. They fail because they are written in a "foreign language." And by "foreign language, " I mean foreign in many ways: wording, length, historical context, narrative conventions, etc. You can't appreciate the beauty of Latin verse if you don't know Latin; you can't appreciate the beauty of "Moby Dick" if you don't "speak" 1851. Sure, we speak English and the novel is written in English, but that's deceptive. It's still foreign and strange without context.

The small problem is that people lack the context; the big problem is that schools attempt to force-feed this context to us in horrible ways that make us hate the whole process. Educators seem to believe that if you require someone to learn context, he'll pop out the other end loving works produced in this context.

[You could argue that maybe the student won't love "Moby Dick," but at least -- through forcing -- he's READ it. If you value that, then more power to you. I'd rather people never experience a book than experience it and hate it.]

There are ways to teach context that aren't painful. The problem is this takes creativity and an independent mind. It will never work for teachers and schools that slavishly follow a curriculum. This is because specific exercises MUST be developed to meet the needs of particular students.

Broadly speaking (since I'm not going to outline a whole educational theory here), teachers need to take a holistic approach to history. They need to take the kids back in time -- in a time machine, so to speak -- and place them on a Nantucket (or wherever) street in the 19th Century. This has very little to do with knowledge and everything to do with sensuality. Students need to see, hear, taste and smell the time period. (And that doesn't JUST mean showing them movies set in the period. The teacher must use more varied and creative approaches.)

For most of us, there's a tipping point when we start LONGING for more information and stories about (and set in) a time period. I think it comes when we own that period. When it becomes almost as real and vital to us as our own. I care deeply about the outdated etiquette in Edith Wharton novels because it's not outdated to me. Over the years, I've built mental structures that "live" in that period, so naturally I care about what goes on in it.
posted by grumblebee at 7:32 AM on May 8, 2007 [2 favorites]


Oh, robocop is bleeding, now I'm all thinkin' about the time I was scribblin' in my notebook in the People's Republik waiting for a date to show, being all literary art girl dorkette... sigh.

When I lived in Prague, cheap cheap cheap editions of English-language classics were available in several bookstores, subsidized, I think, by the British cultural something or another. $2 a book or $20 for recent stuff at the Globe? Well. I knew what to pick, as a poor student type. And so I worked my way through all kinds of stuff I would have never read otherwise (Middlemarch? Oy), as well as My Favorite: Jane Austen.

This whole abridging business is b.s.
posted by bitter-girl.com at 7:36 AM on May 8, 2007



If you have to abridge, abridge by annotation, not (the sin of) omission...


I was thinking something similar. Release these books like a Kafka novel. Move the "extra" bits to the back and mark the elided section with an asterisk. That'd be a perfect compromise.
posted by GalaxieFiveHundred at 7:36 AM on May 8, 2007


Why not do like the New York Times Magazine, and pull one quote per page to overlay in big type? That way you have the choice of reading it, or feeling as if you've read it.
posted by StickyCarpet at 7:47 AM on May 8, 2007


There's this medicinal view that kids have to be forced to read the canon, often taught by teachers who don't really understand why, exactly, the story is so great to begin with.

I agree with that sentiment some degree. High school is about developing discipline/attention span, and sitting down to pore over these tomes, familiarizing yourself with the works, the authors, their times, their vastly varied writing styles, as well to figure out, ultimately, which kids in the class are smarter than the teacher.

I think if you want a career in the literary arts, as a writer, or as an academic, I do think it's critical to plow through these works in the formative years. There will be plenty of time for skimming when you have more reading assigned to you than you can reasonably be expected to get through, such as college.
posted by psmealey at 7:48 AM on May 8, 2007


...sewers sewers sewers...

And what exactly is so bad about it? I thought it was pretty interesting, personally.

What I can't understand is why would you ever by an abridged book in the first place. It takes less paper and is lighter to carry around, but what is it that makes people incapable of selecting for themselves what parts to skip?
Don't like sewers - flip a few pages. You can always come back to them later if you change your mind. Provided that they are there in the first place, of course.
posted by c13 at 7:50 AM on May 8, 2007


Robocop, please get to writing a full length novel (unabridged of course)

I don't know, TwoWordReview, personally I could have done without his thoughts on genre fiction. I mean, what does he know, he's just a writer!

Also, to explain my position further. While the thought of abridging classics activates the snobbish werewolf part of my brain ("You don't like The Waste Land? I rip your spleen out!") thinking back to the parts of great novels I've had to force myself through, I can understand where the impulse to excise those bits comes from. That said, often the boring parts set off the exciting parts, making them even better. I have a theory that the horrible boringness of Levin makes every other character in Anna Karenina seem extra vibrant and compelling.
posted by Kattullus at 7:51 AM on May 8, 2007


"What I can't understand is why would you ever by an abridged book in the first place."

It takes less paper and is lighter to carry around.
Though, to be fair, I've never bought one. And yes, skimming is harder than having a halfway decent editor elide bullshit— you're still having to check every page to see if Dumas is still on about the goddamned sewers rather than having a couple of paragraphs of 'em, then going back to the story.

"I think if you want a career in the literary arts, as a writer, or as an academic, I do think it's critical to plow through these works in the formative years. There will be plenty of time for skimming when you have more reading assigned to you than you can reasonably be expected to get through, such as college."

Eh, I don't know how critical it is— I think it'd be better to have a good teacher doing shorter works from the canon, or intentionally skipping inessential parts in the assignments. I mean, Slaughterhouse 5 is within the grasp of a high schooler (or at least was for me), along with Red Badge of Courage... I guess what I'm saying is that I would have loved and understood Steinbeck so much more if we'd started with Tortilla Flat instead of Grapes of Wrath.
On the other hand, I found everything Salinger wrote that we were supposd to connect with both self-indulgent and obnoxious. And Frankenstein's not actually all that long, though it gets deadly dull.
But having both The Iliad and Aeniad abridged by my teachers' judgement made them both much easier to go through, and meant that when I went back and read them again, I got much more out of them than I think I would have otherwise. Whereas once I finished Crime and Punishment, I both knew I'd never go back and began forgetting as much as possible as quickly as possible.

I'll concede, though, that I've always liked my philosophizin' more when it's non-fiction, and so many of the "important" works that I've been forced to read annoy me.
posted by klangklangston at 8:09 AM on May 8, 2007


When I'm reading a book I love, I don't want it to end. I devoured Moby Dick and a good bit of ancillary material when I was done. I didn't want it to end. Same with the Poisonwood Bible. That book could have been 3000 pages long, as far as I'm concerned.

I'm also not embarrassed to admit that I've never finished a Russian novel. I tried War and Peace, and tried a couple more I can't recall the name of, and I quit them all at 50-100 pages. I still wouldn't have liked them, even if they'd been short, and I have no problem admitting this in casual conversation with the well-read.
posted by Devils Rancher at 8:12 AM on May 8, 2007


Stephen King released an extended version of The Stand that sold more than the original.

When that came out, my mom said I couldn't read it until I finished my high school summer reading, which included Emma.

I STILL hate Jane Austen.
posted by Lucinda at 8:20 AM on May 8, 2007


This seems similar to the idea of colorizing classic movies. The problem people have with classic movies is not that the movies are black and white--it's that they're from a different period with a different cinematic style.

I was an English major, so I've read a lot of classic literature. I liked some of them, and I didn't like some of them, which is fine. I skipped the boring parts in some of them, which is also fine. But I decided what to skip, instead of somebody else deciding that for me.
posted by kirkaracha at 8:25 AM on May 8, 2007 [1 favorite]


I think it'd be better to have a good teacher doing shorter works from the canon, or intentionally skipping inessential parts in the assignments.

Agreed. Although Crime and Punishment reads like what it was, an installment piece written for a magazine to help Dostoevski pay his bills, I liked it enough at the time to be interested enough to read the the Idiot and the Brothers Karamazov, which are still among my favorites of all time.

I have no idea why some books are chosen and others are not. Why we read Les Misérables, rather than Nôtre Dame de Paris, why Moby Dick over Billy Budd, or why Huckleberry Finn was supposed to mean something to me, a suburban white boy growing up in the last quarter of the 20th century and that I felt guilty when I was bored by it.

I definitely agree that there's a better way to teach the canon, and that ghastly pieces of shit like Ethan Frome don't belong anywhere near it.
posted by psmealey at 8:26 AM on May 8, 2007


..still having to check every page to see if Dumas is still on about the goddamned sewers..

Hugo. Victor Hugo...
posted by c13 at 8:27 AM on May 8, 2007


They're weapons.

In the intro to The Kindly Ones, Neil Gaiman mentions that he's quite proud of the fact that that particular volume of Sandman is large enough to be used to fendoff burglars, or some such.

However, I don't think this idea has been explored completely.

We cannot allow a weaponized-book gap!!
posted by sparkletone at 8:27 AM on May 8, 2007


nw if only they could compact COMMENTS at this site
posted by Postroad at 8:29 AM on May 8, 2007


take a minute to admit that most of why War and Peace is famous is because it's so long, not because it's so good

If that was so, Clarissa would be more famous than Middlemarch.
posted by Mocata at 8:32 AM on May 8, 2007


For a long time I would go to bed early.

FIN
posted by uosuaq at 8:41 AM on May 8, 2007


take a minute to admit that most of why War and Peace is famous is because it's so long, not because it's so good

I've often thought that the ponderous Finnegan's Wake and its brother Ulysses weren't so much "great works of fiction" as they were elaborate literary jokes that Joyce played on the pseudo-intellectuals of his day (and ours).

Of course that's an amusing cocktail conversation starter, but just because I think it doesn't make it so. I probably just don't get it. Similarly, War and Peace is famous because it's both (perceived) great and hella long. It's not my favorite of Tolstoy's, but it is an excellent novel and worth the wade through it.
posted by psmealey at 8:47 AM on May 8, 2007 [1 favorite]


I take a DIY approach to the problem of long-winded classics written for a different era: I read the parts that interest me and skip the boring stuff, so I always get the perfect abridgement for my reading pleasure.

Example: Moby Dick

"Call me Ishmael."
*read, read, read*
uh oh, philosophy ahead
*flips a few pages - still boring*
*flip, flip*

whales!
*resumes reading*

But yeah, I agree that some classics are too overwhelming for high-school literature classes. For example, although I was an avid reader, I was stopped in my tracks by Crime and Punishment. I got utterly confused by all the Russian patronymics (each character has about 6 different names, depending on who is talking to them) and thought the cop and the bad guy were one and the same person. The whole book made no sense at all, I figured all of Russian literature must be equally perplexing, and to this day I have not tackled another Russian classic.
there's a reason I went into science, not literature
posted by Quietgal at 8:48 AM on May 8, 2007


I definitely agree that there's a better way to teach the canon, and that ghastly pieces of shit like Ethan Frome don't belong anywhere near it.

posted by psmealey



In a nod to filling the gaps in my canon experience, I read a "classic" every now and then. In that spirit, I read Ethan Frome last year. And all I can say is that I totally agree with psmealey.
posted by darkstar at 8:53 AM on May 8, 2007


Hence, the benefits of age and maturity. I am no longer required to read anything. And I can choose to read what I want, when I want.

Was it a chore to read (OK, re-read) Patrick O'Brian's 2,100 + page sea saga? Yes, it really is one big book. Not one bit. And the last time thru, I picked up War and Peace as something short and light to follow it up with.

What do I read when I'm feeling down and lonely? Herodotus - it gives one perspective. It's thrilling to read Robert Fagles translation of The Illiad.

Unless you are a literature professor, get over yourself. If you're asked, "have you read X" and you haven't, there's no guilt in admitting it. But it might be worth picking up a nice portable version of book X and putting it on the shelf for that moment when the time is right.
posted by cptnrandy at 9:05 AM on May 8, 2007


It would interesting to see if "Infinite Jest" would be read and enjoyed by high school students.
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 9:16 AM on May 8, 2007


You know, you don't have to read anything.

I'd be pretty surprised if the 400 page abridgment is of any more use in terms of "cultural literacy" than a 70 page Cliff Notes (or even a wikipedia precis). So anyone defending these abridgements on the grounds that longer==smarter is a fallacy is probably falling for the same fallacy.
posted by mzurer at 9:21 AM on May 8, 2007


Moby Dick is one of those books that you can take as a central point from which to study the entirety, or nearly so, of western literature, just like the work of Blake. It has the classic eiron in Ishmael, numerous parodies and references to other works of literature, such as Shakespeare and the works of Milton. Ahab has his hobby-horse or obsession, which leads to a reading of Tristram Shandy, etc. Cutting it is a travesty. If you haven't read the real or full version than you haven't read it at all.

They were usually very long because people lived a different pace of life.

So we have less leisure time than those in the past few centuries?
posted by juiceCake at 9:23 AM on May 8, 2007


I'd like to see them edit The Great Gatsby to 400 pages.
posted by Cookiebastard at 9:25 AM on May 8, 2007


although I was an avid reader, I was stopped in my tracks by Crime and Punishment.

I just finished slogging through C & P and it could have used a wee bit of trimming. The multiple names in Russian lit. confuse a lot of people ( a friend of mine kept a "War & Peace" cheat sheet so he could remember who was who each time he read it) but once you get the system down it's not so bad. I like "Classic" Russian literature but they do tend to be a tad long winded.

The whole book made no sense at all, I figured all of Russian literature must be equally perplexing, and to this day I have not tackled another Russian classic.

It makes sense, you just have to wade through a bunch of crap that really didn't need to be there. C & P took me about twice as long as it normally takes me to read a book of that length. Don't give up on the Russians, try some Gogol stories like "The Nose" or the "Overcoat". Good stuff.
posted by MikeMc at 9:28 AM on May 8, 2007


Speedread the abridged version, its faster.
posted by acro at 9:32 AM on May 8, 2007


I'd be pretty surprised if the 400 page abridgment is of any more use in terms of "cultural literacy" than a 70 page Cliff Notes...

Really? I wouldn't.

Eh, tomayto, tomahto.
posted by darkstar at 9:34 AM on May 8, 2007


It would interesting to see if "Infinite Jest" would be read and enjoyed finished by high school students.

Maybe if all incoming H.S. freshman were given a copy and they had to finish it as a graduation requirement they might read it.
posted by MikeMc at 9:45 AM on May 8, 2007


as long as they market it right to minimize the confusion between the real and abridged texts, I don't see a problem.
how about a two-word version: you're lazy
and done!
posted by Busithoth at 9:47 AM on May 8, 2007


It would interesting to see if "Infinite Jest" would be read and enjoyed finished by high school students David Foster Wallace, that lousy son of a bitch.
posted by cortex at 9:54 AM on May 8, 2007 [1 favorite]


Are they going to do this with Ulysses? I'd fucking love to see that.

Has already been done, in The Five-Minute Iliad, which took classic literature and condensed it in a humorous ways.

It was really more of a comedy book than a serious effort at abridgment. Anyway, its reduction of Ulysses sticks out in my mind. Other works usually got about 15-20 or so pages, while Ulysses got one sentence:

"June 16th came and went in Dublin, Ireland."
posted by JHarris at 9:55 AM on May 8, 2007


or why Huckleberry Finn was supposed to mean something to me, a suburban white boy growing up in the last quarter of the 20th century and that I felt guilty when I was bored by it.

I like Huckleberry Finn, but I've often thought there's a mint to be made by translating it into English.

It seems to me that we fetishize the artist to much these days. In a non-writing field, i really wish we'd quit getting mad when directors don't get final cut of a film. Movies are too fucking long. I read on another message board the other day this astute comment: some day soon, studio cuts of movies are going to be more coveted than director's cuts.

Editors in both print and film are a goodness (I say this as someone who spent the moring pruning 1,000 words from a 4,500 word short story at an editor's request). We don't give props to the modern Gordon Lishes and Maxwell Perkins of the world.
posted by Bookhouse at 10:02 AM on May 8, 2007


And before the oldsters get too smug I'd like to see some dude from the 19th century whos read a bunch of books gain a fluency in LolKitteh (or similar phenomena) and a complete understanding of it's place in fifteen minutes based entirely on wikipedia entiries and blogs. Hai!
posted by Artw at 10:03 AM on May 8, 2007


I don't think anything they could do would help The Mill on the Floss.

Says Nick Hornby "Reading should be a joy.

Don't read what you think you ought to read. Read what makes you happy!
posted by triggerfinger at 10:20 AM on May 8, 2007


How hard is it to skip parts you don't want to read? Is that a sin? Hell, I do it all the time. Some times I even... SKIP TO THE END AND READ IT FIRST!!!! Oh god noes!

I'm against abridgment becuase people are too fat. They can use the exercise carrying around War & Peace for a few weeks.

And for a classic Moby Dick is a surprisingly good book. Really helped me build my quads.
posted by tkchrist at 10:22 AM on May 8, 2007


/contemplates Ethan Frome in abridged Lolkitteh...

IM IN UR PARLUR
GUILTIN UR MOODS
posted by darkstar at 10:22 AM on May 8, 2007 [2 favorites]


hwestiii: vis a vis Anna Karenina, is there really much fluff there? I recall a very stately paced narrative, but not a lot in the way of extraneous sidebars as in Les Miz.

Having just yesterday finished Anna Karenina for the first time, I'd say yes, there's fluff, but perhaps not in the sense of whole long digressions into non-plot related items. It's more like long scenes that go on for far too long after they've made their point. The bit where Levin, Oblonsky, and that other guy go hunting comes to mind. It goes on and on with every little detail of everything they do on their hunting trip, and almost none of it has much to do with anything else in the book, except some of Levin's ever-present philosophical and moral angst. I think a shorter Anna Karenina would be possible, but it wouldn't shrink by more than a quarter at most.

When I studied Ulysses in college, the professor openly told us which chapters to "skim" - The "Oxen of the Sun" and "Sirens" come to mind. The prof considered them "interesting failures." And I admit that while the idea of what Joyce does in "Oxen of the Sun" is brilliant, I can't really get through more than a page of it without nodding off. ("Sirens" I have since gone back and enjoyed in full.

Someone else mentioned the fact that many of these old classics were originally serials in magazines. The soap operas of their day, I suppose you could argue. Having enjoyed the marathon stage production of Dickens's The Life and Adventures of Nicholas Nickelby I once tried reading the actual book, and didn't make it through. (I was in junior high at the time, and part of the difficulty can be attributed to a general ignorance of period British terms and culture.) Anyway, when I eventually learned that the thing had originally been a magazine serial, and that he'd been paid by the word for it, I no longer felt bad for not finishing.
posted by dnash at 10:36 AM on May 8, 2007


"We" don't get mad because a director doesn't have final cut, "we" get mad when commercial considerations trump artistic ones. It's a fine line, and plenty of people like the originally released version of "Blade Runner" more than the director's cut. But there is a reason for the phrase "Hollywood Ending." When the studio cut versions of films are more interesting and satisfying than what the director wants, more power to the studio. The idea that "studio cuts of movies are going to be more coveted than director's cuts" isn't astute, it's idiotic. All theatrical releases are studio cuts, even the the ones called "director's cut." It's just that a studio thinks they can make more money by releasing another version.

Of course this has nothing to do with literature. The editing process of films is completely diferent from the editing process of books. Ninety-nine percent of films are collaborative ventures of dozens to hundreds of people. Books are collaborative as well, of course, but on a different and smaller scale.
posted by mzurer at 10:36 AM on May 8, 2007


They can use the exercise carrying around War & Peace for a few weeks.

Carry it? Where would you ever carry a book like that, except home from the store? Seriously, I can't imagine myself reading something like that anywhere else but my bed or my armchair.
posted by c13 at 10:39 AM on May 8, 2007


I have a version of Brothers Karamazov that took out all that unnecessary, boring religion stuff. It is about 200 pages.
posted by geoff. at 10:40 AM on May 8, 2007


you can't appreciate the beauty of "Moby Dick" if you don't "speak" 1851

I think Melville was speaking something unique even for 1851. One reason it didn't sell well. It was kind of a weird novel even its day. I think part of its later fame came from people who imagine that is how the period was, romanticism, coincidently the style of the book.
posted by stbalbach at 10:40 AM on May 8, 2007


MetaFilter: 600 one-page books.
posted by knave at 10:41 AM on May 8, 2007 [2 favorites]


I can't imagine myself reading something like that anywhere else but my bed or my armchair.

I don't get it. Why not? Because it's too big?
posted by grumblebee at 10:44 AM on May 8, 2007


Because it makes you look like a show-off where ever you go?
posted by geoff. at 10:46 AM on May 8, 2007


It sounds like most of you don't know the huge changes that happen to most books between the time the author has had his moment of inspiration and the time the editor has gone through it. Words are not sacred.

f people don’t have time to read Anna Karenina, then fine. But don’t read a shortened version and kid yourself it’s the real thing.”

"The real thing" being the Constance Garnett translations? I don't think this word means what you think it means.
posted by Space Coyote at 10:46 AM on May 8, 2007


Why not? Because when I really get to read books like that, I get into them, and hate to be distracted. I've tried to read or study in a park before, but too much stuff goes on for me to concentrate. Where else would you read it? A bar? I drink at a bar, not read...
posted by c13 at 10:48 AM on May 8, 2007


"The real thing" being the Constance Garnett translations?

Hey man. I don't read translations. I go right to the original.

I usually seek the original manuscript. I put on my Ninja outfit, shimmy down the wall of the estate and use poison darts to knock out the guards— or I will dress in lingerie and seduce them (more effect than you'd think)— then I sneak into the secret vault where the original (often hand written) manuscript is kept under security glass and lasers. I will replace it with my signature velvet "reading glasses" monogrammed glove.

Where this is not possible I will travel back in time to confront the author. If he resists I will kill him and eat his brain and thus absorb the original neurons that conceived the novel.

Mmmmmm. Paradise Lost. Tasted like brandy and lamb.

Anna Karenina? Skunky cabbage and cheap vodka. Yuk.

The rest of you are poseurs!
posted by tkchrist at 11:02 AM on May 8, 2007 [2 favorites]


I love showing off my books, because I collect cool old editions. But I also read them. And in bars!

The abridgment that occurs may be more or less skillful depending on the editor, but it's still an insult to the original work, which in my opinion must be taken in its entirety or not at all. If you skip the "Cetology" and "The Whale as Art" chapters in Moby Dick, well, you're not only missing interesting chapters, but you're missing the whole point of the book. And if someone skips it for you and you don't realize it, I don't know who to blame but you're both losing out.

As for translations, as long as they're not edited by the translator (that is, they don't redact or add as they please, only small amounts to make it palatable in our language), I prefer the older edition because I think for some books the archaic english is more appropriate - Count of Monte Cristo for example. Also, I don't like Robert Fagles, and I'm angry that his was the first translation of the Odyssey I read. DON'T read Fagles, read Lattimore.
posted by BlackLeotardFront at 11:13 AM on May 8, 2007


I guess I really am getting old, because I've been reading a lot of the canonical works "just for fun" in the last year or so. There is an element of smugness to it, but I think the stronger impulse is, after having all these great works cited up and down to me for 40+ years, I've decided to see what all the fuss was about.

Some were harder than others (Anna Karenina), some were frustrating (Les Miz), and some were actually surprised me by how thoroughly enjoyable they were (Swann's Way). I don't think I would have been well served by an abridgement of any of them.
posted by hwestiii at 11:16 AM on May 8, 2007


I've never read Moby Dick, but I saw this as a kid, so it's pretty much like I read it, right?
posted by Uther Bentrazor at 11:32 AM on May 8, 2007


"...in my opinion must be taken in its entirety or not at all"

Oh for Pete's sake. This thread is silly.

A Cliff Notes version of King Lear is nothing like seeing it performed on a stage. Nor should it be. Nor is reading the script anything like seeing it as Shakespeare intended: off the page and on the stage. Nor should it be.

I read Huckleberry Finn. I read The Pearl. I read Of Mice and Men. I read The Jungle. Homer's Illiad & Odyssey, Dante's Inferno. Canterbury Tales, most of Shakespeare, and a lot of other stuff. Most of these were school assignments. Sometimes I'd read the whole thing and the Cliff Notes were just an occasional learning aid. Sometimes I'd read a few chapters, and then turn to the Cliff Notes to pass the tests, cuz I didn't care how many teachers would tell me something was good - I know crap when I smell it.

Whether I read every word from cover to cover or "cheated" with the help of commentaries and summaries, so far as I am concerned I read that book. I got what I wanted from it at least. Telling someone they have to read every word of a book or not at all, is like telling someone they have to clean their plate or starve to death. You're all being silly.

I loved Twain. I adored Chaucer. Upton Sinclair? Not so much. Homer was like reading a foreign language (poetry), and I needed the learning aids to translate for me, but Homer was awesome once I bridged the communication barrier. Steinbeck? I wanted to hit his head with a two by four by the time I was done. Dante was VERY very cool, but he was also an arrogant prick.

I haven't read Lord of the Flies. I will not. Recently, I wanted to learn about the general overview of that book so I could understand if there's any significance compared to the television show LOST. I have learned I know enough about Lord of the Flies now to know I don't wanna read it. I don't need to read it to know I wouldn't like it. Still. I'm thankful there's summaries and commentaries out there I can use to glean what I needed from the book without actually having to read it word for word.

For all intents and purposes, I feel 'books' in the classic sense of them are and should be nearing extinction. The killing of trees isn't going away yet, but a few generations from now people will see the benefit of a portable Book Display Unit that can be an entire library in the palm of your hand. In some ways we are already there. In other ways we have a long way to go. Most books I could care less about reading.

I say that so I can say this.

Gene Kranz' "Failure Is Not An Option" was an awe-inspiring read. You won't find Cliff Notes on it anywhere. You won't see it on any scholastic list for required reading. In fact I bet most self-assumed scholars of literary work would scoff at Kranz' autobiography. It's no great classic that will be revelled in colleges and high states of learning. Kranz is no Marlowe or Yeats or Browning. He has no poetic grasp of the language. He's just this guy. It's just a book.

If you know anything about the history of this man's story, there's no suspense. There's no surprises. You know what he did, but to read his words (perhaps ghost written or collaborative but work with me here) and feel as if you're sitting next to him in some cafeteria and he's just nonchalantly relaying his experiences to you... Wow.

It reads to me like a science fiction novel, only it's REAL. It's the autobiographical account of a man who was at the hottest hot seat on the planet in the 1960s and 70s - Flight Director at ground control for NASA during the Gemini and Apollo space missions. Oh. My. God. I don't say that cuz Kranz is some kinda poet laurette. He's so not. In fact at times the prose is downright sapless. He just tells it like it happened and it's rich and fun and scary and euphoric and melancholic and maudlin and normal and surreal and a thousand other things all at once. However it's never ostentatious or pedantic. He's not high-fallutin' or schmaltzy. He's just... a guy who did a job.

You're in the mind of the guy who got up every morning, drank some coffee, had a cigarette, sat in his chair, and then asked a thousand men if they were ready to go for the moon. Then he'd get a thousand replies, and answer them in turn. He solved thousands of problems, and some days they did everything right, and some days they didn't. Some days it only took one little itty bitty wrong thing to throw everything else out of whack - from Kranz' perch you get to see how all the parts of the whole came together and what happened when they didn't. It's just awe-inspiring.

I read it on breaks and during lunches at my own maudlin surreal job at the time. A book in my lap. A cigarette at my lips. Sometimes a soda. Turning page after page in my spare time. Blocking out whatever was around me so I could be transported for a few moments at a time back to 1970. Not so long ago, in fact within the course of my own lifetime, but it feels like it's so many worlds away from us now. How could all that have happened here?

A person sitting alone with a book in hand is a very unassuming thing, but it's also an amazing thing. Two minds interacting when one of them is not there, and yet what they left behind is there for the other to experience. Sometimes you can't replace that. You can change the medium, but the actual words themselves from the writer need to be intact for one to truly experience that mind sharing magic thing that I don't think there's a word for.

I don't know if Gene Kranz' book would work for you as it did for me. I happened to want to know that man's story in his words. I happened to need to exprience that experience in that way at that time. I wouldn't want to do that with most books.

I haven't read Philip K Dick's "Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep." I prefer having seen the movie Blade Runner. People who have read the book say it was nothing like the movie, but I fear if I read the book it'll make me not like the movie any more, and I really liked the movie.

I did read Michael Crichton's "A Lost World" and I saw Spielberg's movie. Meh. I can't decide if I liked them both or just parts of each or... I'm not sure if having experienced them both helped me appreciate either of them better, or if I can only appreciate them separately. I dunno. It reinforces for me why I fear reading P. K. Dick's book. I don't wanna feel like this about Blade Runner.

I haven't read Tolkein all the way through. Managed to read The Hobbit I think back in junior high but at times it was like going to the dentist's. I am however thankful that Peter Jackson read those books, and shared with me what he saw in his mind's eye. Maybe I didn't get the full experience. Maybe I didn't want the full experience. Maybe you don't need to read it word for word to glean from it what you need to get through your life.

I didn't read Tolkein perhaps. I experienced Jackson walking me through Tolkein, like he was a tour guide.

Your mileage will no doubt vary, and that's very okay. =)
posted by ZachsMind at 11:32 AM on May 8, 2007 [1 favorite]


...ESKIMO...
posted by Artw at 11:34 AM on May 8, 2007 [1 favorite]


That'll do, ZachsMind. That'll do.
posted by katillathehun at 11:43 AM on May 8, 2007


Did I not experience Lord of the Rings because I let Peter Jackson take me by the hand and escort me through it?

When Virgil escorted Dante through hell, did Dante not experience hell?

Gene Kranz was there when Apollo landed on the moon. I felt like I was there when I read his words describing it. However, I wasn't really. Kranz led me through that part of his life in his book, yet I really didn't experience it... Did I?

Just something to think about. =)
posted by ZachsMind at 11:43 AM on May 8, 2007


Did I not experience Lord of the Rings because I let Peter Jackson take me by the hand and escort me through it?

Well, you sure as heck didn't read it. And Dante sure as shit didn't wallow in damnation and torment for eternity. Experience? Sure. Have a the specific experience suggested by the question? No, not really.
posted by cortex at 11:49 AM on May 8, 2007


I skipped to the end of Zachsminds post. Is there an abridged version I can read?

I might print it out and heft it around town just to burn some calories though.
posted by tkchrist at 11:52 AM on May 8, 2007 [1 favorite]


I was kinda wondering if there was a Choose-Your-Own-Adventure version.

If you read Lord of the Rings, turn to page 17,
If not, turn to page 349.

Page 349:

You do not read Lord of the Rings but experience it, hand in hand with Peter Jackson. Unfortunately, there were lots of things in the book that were not in the movie. Virgil later leads you through Hell but totally leaves out the part where he takes you out of it. The End.
posted by katillathehun at 12:00 PM on May 8, 2007 [4 favorites]


Where this is not possible I will travel back in time to confront the author. If he resists I will kill him and eat his brain and thus absorb the original neurons that conceived the novel.

Do you then gain the author's writing ability in the process?
posted by eustacescrubb at 12:00 PM on May 8, 2007


I skipped to the end of Zachsminds post. Is there an abridged version I can read?

"I don't like Steinbeck. I've read a lot of books and watched a lot of movie adaptations. Neither is better than the other. You don't need to read the classics if the movie is any good."
posted by MikeMc at 12:03 PM on May 8, 2007


For all intents and purposes, I feel 'books' in the classic sense of them are and should be nearing extinction. The killing of trees isn't going away yet, but a few generations from now people will see the benefit of a portable Book Display Unit that can be an entire library in the palm of your hand.

In the not all too distant future a more efficient method of getting information to the brain than writing will be invented and generations who don't require reading to get by will cease to read. The written word will become a dead language. Like Latin after the fall of Rome. That's what I think, anyway.

Which brings to mind something. Writing, in and of itself, is an abridgment of spoken language. The myriad tones, inflections, not to mention dialects, are compressed into a very small set of characters. It's awe inspiring. Well, to me, anyway. What a thing of genius the alphabet is.
posted by Kattullus at 12:03 PM on May 8, 2007


tl; dr
posted by Methylviolet at 12:04 PM on May 8, 2007 [1 favorite]


Just kidding. I skimmed it.

Recently, I wanted to learn about the general overview of [Lord of the Flies] so I could understand if there's any significance compared to the television show LOST.

That made me chuckle so hard my monocle fell out.
posted by Methylviolet at 12:08 PM on May 8, 2007


Although if they wouldn't read them at all otherwise, maybe this is the only way.

the only way for what? the only way for what...? why does it matter if other people read "classic" literature? Why is it better if they read watered down versions of literature than not at all?

...I love books, but I have absolutely no interest in forcing other people to read more of them if they aren't so inclined. If they really find them boring, how does it benefit any of us to try to get them to read fake versions so we can all pretend they're less bored by something we thought was interesting... or... I mean, I just don't understand what the point is. Tastes diverge. Some people actually enjoy these books. Some people don't. That is okay.

It's good to try to make sure younger people have the chance to discover great literature, but giving them fake great literature does not make sense to me. Moby Dick without the whaling details & philosophical insights would be utterly pointless. The "story" part of the story is good to sort of tie the whole thing together, but to me the meat of the book was everything in between, and it'd have been nothing worth bothering about without it.

Re: specific abridgments:
Decline & Fall is history, and is six volumes without abridgment, so reading a shortened version is the norm, but then you would note whether you were reading Mueller's selections or Trevor-Roper's, for instance. That is more like reading a translation, I think, as the editors are scholars who really spend their academic lives making these choices.
I wouldn't have thought of Les Miserables as a book on the "classics" list, for some reason, and have never really had an interest in reading it so don't feel I can really comment beyond saying, being long is no criterion for being good. stephen king & michael crichton have written plenty of long books, and tolstoy melville wrote plenty that was short. Read something because you want to read it, not to prove your reading endurance or something.
posted by mdn at 12:11 PM on May 8, 2007


"I wouldn't have thought of Les Miserables as a book on the "classics" list,"

It's not necessarily on the "classics" list, but it was on the "assigned" list. Which goes along with the comment that you don't have to read anything from above, which is true so long as you don't plan on ever having any academic degree. Hell, I read Huck Finn in middle school because I had to (and have since gone back and realized that it was much funnier and a better book than I'd given it credit for, but Twain was best when writing travelogues).
posted by klangklangston at 12:34 PM on May 8, 2007


Did I not experience Lord of the Rings because I let Peter Jackson take me by the hand and escort me through it?

This is a really easy question to answer: there are multiple stories with the title "Lord of the Rings." The fact that these stories are similar in many ways does not make them identical.

You experienced on of the "Lord of the Rings" stories, and you didn't experience another one.

You may or may not be able to have a meaningful conversation with someone who has experienced a different "Lord of the Rings" from you. (You may or may not be able to make sense of a critical work on another version of "Lord of the Rings.") It depents on whether the discussion focuses on aspects common to both versions.
posted by grumblebee at 12:46 PM on May 8, 2007 [2 favorites]


Discussions like this are generally doomed, because there's not enough common ground. It's pointless to discuss whether or not someone SHOULD read unabridged books unless we agree on...

1. The meaning of unabridged. Does it mean what the author originally wrote? What the published published? Does it apply to the first edition? The most recent edition? The edition favored by scholars? Do translations count?

2. What's the purpose of reading? Pleasure? To get some point? To pass a test? To prove your worthiness/smartness? To commune with an author? Does everyone need to read with the same purpose? Are some purposes better than others? Are some ways of reading more likely to lead to pleasure, knowledge or social worth? If so, is one foolish not to read these ways?

3. What happens to a work when it's abridged? Does abridgement always damage a work? Does it ever improve a work?

4. Can one's personal reaction to a book be somehow wrong or misguided? Can one hate a good book? What does it mean for it to be good if you hate it? Good in what sense? In the sense that scholars (or the general public) like it? Should that matter to you? Why?

My take on all this is really simply. I'm not in school (thank God), and I feel no social pressure to read, so I read for pleasure only. I get pleasure mostly from plot, character, language, a developed world and sensual details. I find that, in general, I get these pleasures more from classics that from modern books. If I got them more from modern books than classics, I'd quit reading classics.

I think it's possible that an abridgments could be better than a longer version. By "better," I mean more apt to give me the sorts of pleasures I seek (plot, character, etc.) than the full version. I don't care about "getting the point," "passing the test," "being cultured," or "what the author intended." I just care about pleasure (as I defined it).

While it's possible I'll get these pleasures more from an abridgement than a full version, it doesn't tend to be the case. I've rarely found a GOOD abridgment. A good one would be one in which the adapter was a perceptive artist who discovered a way of improving the original by cutting it. This is very possible (it's what editors do every day), but in my experience, it's rare with a classic.

Classics are often (not always) classics because they have "stood the test of time." They've gotten the stamp of approval by generation after generation. There's a Darwinian process that tends to keep deeply flawed books from remaining popular. This process doesn't always works, but it tends to work. And even when it doesn't, there's no guarantee that a specific abridgement (especially if it's made for commercial -- as opposed to artistic -- reasons) will help.

If you're reading for different reasons from me, it may make total sense to read an abridgement. For instance, if you're reading to "get the point" or "pass the test." But I don't want you to read for a different reason from me!

This is selfish, and I freely admit it. I'm not talking about what I expect, or what I have a right to expect, or what's good for people, or what's right. I'm talking about what I want: about the type of world I wish I lived in.

I wish I lived in a world in which people only read fiction because they wanted to. And, of course, I wish they wanted to. And I wish they read for the same sensual pleasures that I read for. I'm fairly certain that if I lived in such a world, most of the inhabitants would merrily read the classics. They offer the most consistent means of finding ALL of the following in one book:

1. transportation to another world. (SciFi/fantasy tends to offer this, too, but it often doesn't offer...)

2. beauty of language. (Which can but doesn't necessarily mean flowery, ornate language. I think Orwell and Hemmingway are two of the most beautiful prose writers who ever lived. But I also love Shakespeare and Dickens.)

3. careful, rich and artful plotting.

4. complex (3D) characters.

5. a constant baragement of sensual details.

6. no didacticism (because, for me, when I'm constantly aware that the author has a message, I have a harder time getting wrapped up his world's sensual details) -- or didacticism that's easy to ignore.

Certainly, there are modern novels that offer all these pleasures, but I find them to be fewer and farther between than in older books. And that is the ONLY reason I prefer older books.
posted by grumblebee at 1:16 PM on May 8, 2007


The written word will become a dead language.

If you've had any exposure to how students and everyday people write these days, that future is now. Spoken word, too, for the most part.

I think when society arrives at a point where there is no longer an emphasis on critical thinking or a desire or ability to examine primary texts for commalities and themes, you end up with FoxNews, the Iraq War, Paris Hilton, and President George W. Bush.

This isn't to say everyone needs to read the fucking Red Pony or the Old Man and the Sea, but this lack of emphasis on education, science, math and, yes, reading has pretty much resulted in this shallow shorthand culture where conjecture and spin are spoon fed to us as "facts" and accepted without further examination. If this is the way things are going, I hate to see where we end up in a decade or so.
posted by psmealey at 1:26 PM on May 8, 2007


/ this country is going to hell in a handbasket bitter old man rant
posted by psmealey at 1:28 PM on May 8, 2007


psmealey, do you have any data to back up your claim? May feeling is that the vast majority of people -- throughout history -- have always been uneducated. Most of the time, common people couldn't even read -- let alone read the classics.

Whether or not certain things are emphasized in school seems to most impact a small cultural elite. So maybe that elite has become a little less (culturally) elite.

I'm not saying that doesn't matter, but I think it's worth defining the problem a bit better.
posted by grumblebee at 1:32 PM on May 8, 2007


The artist owes you a quality experiance. What you owe to an artist is your attention. Where you diminish his effort to create that experiance predicated on your (or someone else’s!) estimation of what is necessary to a work is where you cheat the artist of your attention.
Any given book is not an inviolate experiance of an idea, no. But neither can it be divorced from the prose which supports it, all of it is part of the story itself. Much as a symphony is not a symphony without all the instruments even if the notes are all there. It requires a certain method of delivery which requires certain instruments.

In literature the method of delivery is extraordinarialy nuanced - conscious meaning alone is ripe with subtextual references, themes, references and rich complex details (at least in the masterful works we’re talking about), arbitrarially cutting out the bits that are “unnecessary” to read - and most importantly - before you have read them, does irreparable damage to the work.

Indeed, have you truly read the Divine Comedy if you’ve not read Virgil or Meister Eckhart or Aquinas and understand the references he’s making? That work is far far more than simply the discrete books which comprise it.

There’s far more to literacy than simply knowing the story.
+ what BigSky sed
But apparently people will pay extra to seem literate rather than to work to be literate.
I don’t really care though, they’re only cheating themselves.

“The big problem with these books is that even if they're classics, they're not that entertaining (well most of em).”

I agree with your central point but this I have to address. It’s a matter of taste and refinement. Much as learning to enjoy wine (or beer for that matter) is a learned skill, so too is reading. If someone doesn’t enjoy a ‘classic’ odds are they haven’t developed the skills or the reference level to enjoy it.
I’ve been through Finnigans Wake several times and without a good knowlege of Ireland, puns, Christianity, songs and ballads, Vico’s constructivism, European history, mythology, etc. etc. you’re not going to get it. And indeed, I’ve missed a hell of a lot of it (I still wouldn’t say I’ve “read” it), but it’s a lot of fun to follow and make discoveries in it.
But that’s with any work. Finnigans Wake is damn funny in parts and it’s nifty to discover stuff that he references and make new connections.
Classics wouldn’t be classics unless they were the peak of entertaining and interesting and fun work. Art is meant to be absorbing.
People might recognize mastery of craft in a work but it’s not going to be a classic because of that alone. (Indeed, lots of people argue against Finnigans Wake as having any merit at all).

Just because you* don’t get it, doesn’t mean that it isn’t any good.
(*the universal ‘you’ there, not anyone personally)

Indeed, I’ve often wondered at the capacity of people to think something or someone is stupid because they are out of their depth.
One of my professors a while back wryly remarked that some people disparage classical music as “that long-hair stuff.”
I got a chuckle out of that because I had several cultural reference points to it (one being the cartoons wherein Leonard Bernstein types were portrayed with long flowing white hair), but the people that didn’t get it apparently thought he was an idiot.

In my estimation, these books are for those people.
Not that there’s anything really wrong with that. Nothing stopping someone from getting a gym membership and never going either.
Just don’t tell me you “work out” because you have a plastic gym card.
(again - all “you”’s are generally speaking)

And abridging Moby Dick is a crime. The prose though is an absolute pleasure to read. Why should there be less of it? That’s what makes the book fun. The plot is pretty simple.

But that’s sort of the problem, people feel like they should read “the classics.” They shouldn’t, they should just read whatever they like. The reason reading is “good” and we want people reading at any cost is because they should develop those references so more and more work and more complex work is available to them.
Same point to any exercise, only it’s physical instead of mental.
posted by Smedleyman at 1:33 PM on May 8, 2007


I'd also argue that people are more literate and verbal today than just ten or twenty years ago. This is due largely to the rise of email and certain trends in African American culture.

I have ZERO personal connection with "black" English (Ebonics, whatever you want to call it...). I don't like it, because I'm old and set in my ways. But I can't deny that it's vibrant -- much in the way that Elizabethan English was vibrant. It's playful and intensely verbal.

There is, of course, a ton of poorly-written email (blog entries, etc.), but there's a staggering amount of total email. Maybe in the long run, writing is doomed, but it's currently going through a renaissance.

I wish people liked the kind of writing, speaking (music, food, etc.) I liked, but I can't use my sorrow over the fact that they don't to pretend that language itself is declining. It's blooming!
posted by grumblebee at 1:38 PM on May 8, 2007


I really liked Eathan Frome. And Anna Karenina, even Levin. And Madame Bovary, too, for that matter. But I hate Jane Austen so very very much.

Anyway, I wish people had the good education and faith in themselves to just read whatever and skip the parts they chose to skip, but do think abridgement does give the wrong idea of literature: that the plot is the point.
posted by dame at 1:40 PM on May 8, 2007 [1 favorite]


Here are my answers to grumblbee's questions

1. The meaning of unabridged...

The unabridged text is a text that can be considered canonical. There are generally a few texts that lay claim to being canonical, but only one holds that status at any given time. Sometimes that changes, e.g. Blade Runner the Director's Cut superceding the theatrical release to the point that finding the theatrical release is near impossible. Another example is the endless fight about what version of Hamlet should be used. Earliest quarto? First folio? First folio with the swearwords put back in and the really weird analogies made more sensical? Shakespeare, in fact, is a counter-example to my claim that only one text is considered canonical.

2. What's the purpose of reading?...

I'd say that it depends on the text, the reader and the circumstances. For instance, there's a difference between reading The Great Gatsby a) just because one felt like it b) as an assignment even though one hates it c) as an assignment and one loves it. Therefore the purpose of reading is different every time. It may even vary during the reading of the same book (reading at home, reading on the subway in hope the smelly person doesn't strike up a conversation).

3. What happens to a work when it's abridged?...

It becomes non-canonical. An abridged text can never be canonical, as opposed to the "author's preferred version," "original manuscript," "first edition" or "scholarly text."

4. Can one's personal reaction to a book be somehow wrong or misguided?...

Yes and no. An aesthetic judgment is never wrong. If I say I don't like Infinite Jest and you say that it's the greatest thing since sliced bread, both are equally valid. However, if I'd say that I didn't like Infinite Jest because it is an incitement to murder all tennis players, I'd be misguided.
posted by Kattullus at 1:45 PM on May 8, 2007


I share many of your sentiments, Smedleyman, but I'm troubled by your language. You put things on a moral grounding, and I'm baffled as to where you derive your morality:

What you owe to an artist is your attention.


Why? Who says? The artist? I'm an artist. I direct plays. I work very hard on them, and I desperately hope the audience will pay attention. But they don't OWE me attention. I can't think of a single, common moral system that claims audiences (or readers) own attention to artists. You're welcome to have an eccentric moral system, but why should anyone else share it?

Much as a symphony is not a symphony without all the instruments even if the notes are all there. It requires a certain method of delivery which requires certain instruments.

Requires? Maybe you're not being moralist. Maybe you're just defining terms. Maybe, according to you, a symphony is not a symphony unless it contains A, B and C. You see something without C, so you claim that it's not a symphony. Fair enough, but all you're doing is making your own bed and lying in it. What should I sleep in your bed? I can just as easily define a dog as being an three-legged animal and then go around insisting that quadrupeds aren't dogs.

arbitrarially cutting out the bits that are “unnecessary” to read - and most importantly - before you have read them, does irreparable damage to the work.

My guess is that many people share this feeling. I do too, but it's worth getting beyond the knee-jerk and delving deeper. Specifically: what does it mean to irreparably damage a work?

I'd accept this at face value if, say, someone abridged "King Lear" and then burned every copy of the original. But that sort of thing rarely happens. So surely you don't mean that the work itself is permanently damaged. You must be talking about the EXPERIENCE a particular person has when he reads a work.

Similarly, I might say that the warm weather ruined my skiing trip to the alps. That makes sense. What doesn't make sense is to claim that the alps themselves have been ruined. Or even that I can never have a successful skiing trip there again. (A person who reads "Lear" abridged might later pick up a complete copy.)

Still, I do sort of have a feeling that abridging is damaging. It's much like how I'd feel if I saw someone painting graffiti all over a Picasso print or heard someone playing Mozart on a kazoo. This philistine isn't hurting the actual Picasso painting or having any effect on the concert hall, so what's my problem?

My problem is that I'm deeply in love with certain works, and I want everyone to share my love -- or at least not spit on it. In short, my sensibilities are wounded when I'm forced to notice that there are boors in the world. I'm not ashamed of this, but I know it for what it is. Seeing someone spit in the soup is revolting, but it doesn't signal the end of all culinary arts.

I think I'm also hurt because since I know how much I enjoy work X, I know how much the boor could love it, too, if he would just be a little less boorish. And I want others to enjoy! So I have a selfless desire, too. But both it and my selfish desire are, at heart, pretty simply. I want more people to be like me! To like the things I like!
posted by grumblebee at 2:00 PM on May 8, 2007


do you have any data to back up your claim?

No, I really don't. I was just doing a little pointless tongue-in-cheek ranting.

I could give you the whole spiel on why EVERYONE. SHOULD. READ THE CLASSICS. But it's something you buy or you don't. For most here, it looks like: don't.

Given my background, studying latin and greek in jr. high/high school, going to a "great books" schoool, etc., reading the classics was always something that I had considered an imperative. I was a pretty good little automaton reading bot all the way through those years, and never questioned that it wasn't the right way to get an education. It just never occurred to me how much in the minority on this I am, even here on MeFi.
posted by psmealey at 2:01 PM on May 8, 2007


abridgement does give the wrong idea of literature: that the plot is the point.

So who gets to say what the right idea of literature is? And why should we obey him?
posted by grumblebee at 2:01 PM on May 8, 2007


The unabridged text is a text that can be considered canonical.

Your passive voices interests me. WHO considers unabridged texts canonical? Most scholars? Okay, but why should I care? How does the fact that a work is canonical affect my experience of reading it? If it doesn't, is there some other experience that I should care about? If so, why?
posted by grumblebee at 2:06 PM on May 8, 2007


People aren't less literate and articulate than they used to be. Less literate and articulate people are more visible than they used to be.
posted by cortex at 2:13 PM on May 8, 2007


why does it matter if other people read "classic" literature? Why is it better if they read watered down versions of literature than not at all?

I think this common urge comes from the horrible notion that a great book has to have a lesson, a moral, a useful insight into real life, something that can be summarized, interpreted, learned, and applied. Kundera:
To be without a feeling for art is no disaster. A person can live in peace without reading Proust or listening to Schubert. But the misomusist does not live in peace. He feels humiliated by the existence of something that is beyond him, and he hates it. There is a popular misomusy just as there is a popular anti-Semitism. The fascist and Communist regimes made use of it when they declared war on modern art. But there is an intellectual, sophisticated misomusy as well: it takes revenge on art by forcing it to a purpose beyond the aesthetic. The doctrine of engage art: art as an instrument of politics. The professors for whom a work of art is merely the pretext for deploying a method (psychoanalytic, semiological, sociological, etc.). The apocalypse of art: the misomusists will themselves take on the making of art; thus will their historic vengeance be done.
posted by pracowity at 2:22 PM on May 8, 2007 [3 favorites]


if I'd say that I didn't like Infinite Jest because it is an incitement to murder all tennis players, I'd be misguided.

This is a fascinating and complex claim. To help unpack it, consider this simple "story":

George's was poor and lived in a tiny cottage, but his neighbor lived in a mansion surrounded by beautiful grounds. One day, the neighbor stopped George on the street and say, "I've seen you admire my garden. Please feel free to visit it any time you want. The only thing I ask is that you never pick fruit off of my trees."

Overjoyed, George ran home and told his wife about the neighbor's invitation, and they spent the next weekend strolling through his gardens. All went well, until George's wife plucked an apple from a low-hanging branch...


Okay, so A and B read this story:

A: it's clearly an alegory for the Garden of Eden.
B: I disagree.

Who is right?

Though I'm tempted to say, "A, of course! It's OBVIOUS!", I'm going to side with "neither" or "both." I don't think right or wrong makes sense in this context.

Now, I'm NOT going to make the claim that there are no right statements one could make about this story. One could certainly claim it had a certain number of letters, words and sentences, and those claims are either right or wrong.

Beyond that, you can claim that the character George has a neighbor and a wife; that the wife plucked an apple; etc. Those claims are all true. And it would be false to claim that the neighbor invited George into his house.

It's also true that most people who share some common references (e.g. Bible stories) will necessarily think of the Garden of Eden when they read this story. They won't be able to help themselves. The Garden of Eden "neurons" will automatically fire.

If you WANT to define fictional truth as those associations certain people (the majority? scholars? you?) make when they read a story, be my guest. But I see no reason why I or anyone else should share this definition. (Except that it is, perhaps, a useful definition when one's primary reason for reading is to place the book in some sort of standard social or academic framework. That's certainly not why I read, though it may be why you read. Which is all well and good, but why should other people read like that?)

There's NOTHING about the Garden of Eden in the story. It's never mentioned. As I've said, it's bound to be a common association, but the most we can say about someone who doesn't share it is that he's eccentric. How can we say he's wrong about what's in the story.

You also might say that the story is about the Garden of Eden because important scholars have agreed on this interpretation. Fine, but why should I care about these scholars? That's a social claim, not a literary claim.

Finally, you might say that the story is about the Garden of Eden because the author intended it to be about the Garden of Eden. If you make this claim, you'd have to first prove that this was his intention and you'd then have to make me care what he intended. I laughed when I saw "Bringing up Baby." If you tell me that the director intended it to be a tragedy, that wouldn't change the fact that I found -- and still find it -- funny.
posted by grumblebee at 2:24 PM on May 8, 2007


It's not necessarily on the "classics" list, but it was on the "assigned" list. Which goes along with the comment that you don't have to read anything from above, which is true so long as you don't plan on ever having any academic degree.

well, if you're getting academic credit for reading a book, you'd better be fucking reading the assigned book, IMO... That is a different story. Don't go to college, or don't major in literature, or don't attend a school with requirements you're not prepared to meet...

This again just points out the problem, though, that people are more concerned with the symbol of the thing than with the thing itself. Do you want an education or do you want a diploma? Do you want to read a book or do you want to be able to tell people you've read a book?

I guess the diploma / educated-sounding thing can get you a job and maybe even a whole fake life, where everyone's pretending to have read books people are supposed to have read, but as you may have guessed, I don't relate.

In your spare time read what you find interesting; in your education, fulfill the requirements of your school or find another school.
posted by mdn at 2:27 PM on May 8, 2007


People aren't less literate and articulate than they used to be. Less literate and articulate people are more visible than they used to be.

This is 100% true. When I was a kid, there were no programs on TV like "The Jerry Springer Show." But the sorts of people who are on it definitely existed. I went to school with them every day. They just weren't represented in popular (or elitist) culture.
posted by grumblebee at 2:28 PM on May 8, 2007


Again, I find myself sharing someone's sentiments: this time, mdn's. But again I think it's worth delving deeper, because I fear we're confusing two different things.

WHY does it offend us that (some) people pretend to read books that they haven't read?

Are be just offended by dishonesty? Would be equally offended if they pretended to have shopped at supermarkets that they'd never been to?

Or are we offended that they haven't read the books? If so, are these people worse than the billions who honestly admit that they haven't read the books? Yes, of course they are, because they're lying, but is it anything beyond that?

I love books and I hate dishonesty. I think my brain just has a spasm when those two items are combined.
posted by grumblebee at 2:34 PM on May 8, 2007


Heather: It's just like Hamlet said, "To thine own self be true."
Cher: Hamlet didn't say that.
Heather: I think I remember Hamlet accurately.
Cher: Well, I remember Mel Gibson accurately, and he didn't say that. That Polonius guy did.
posted by DevilsAdvocate at 3:27 PM on May 8, 2007


"6. no didacticism (because, for me, when I'm constantly aware that the author has a message, I have a harder time getting wrapped up his world's sensual details) -- or didacticism that's easy to ignore."

Oh, Christ yes. This, along with the Kundera quote above, strike a resonant chord with me— one of the fastest ways to turn me off of a book is to make explicit a message or a program. I minored in political theory, so I have no problem with philosophies and allegories, but the type of intelligence that I associate with fiction writers is rarely the type that I associate with great non-fiction writers (though there are exceptions). Call it an extreme antipathy to Rand, who I tried to read in high school to impress some girl that I thought was hot, but ultimately concluded wasn't worth the bother (Rand or the girl).

"I could give you the whole spiel on why EVERYONE. SHOULD. READ THE CLASSICS. But it's something you buy or you don't. For most here, it looks like: don't."

I don't want to give the wrong impression— for the most part, I agree. I just have a different set of "classics." Like, to again riff on politics, knowing the Iliad and the Bible really helped when dealing with "classical" writers; I enjoyed Shakespeare moderately, though I'd argue against reading any work that you haven't seen performed (and even then, he's got a lot more crap than is regularly acknowledged). No, no, for me the dead zone is the high-falutin' prose of the late-1800s until the stripped modernism took over. I don't find myself transported, I find myself bored. And I'd rather look over the Eclogues than Byron or Shelley's rococco romanticism any day. Which isn't to say that I don't get, to some extent, the point of romanticism or enjoy some of it, but it's like the landscape painting of the same time— mostly dated crap. (Like the fucking German Nationalist movement of Munich in the 1800s. Yeah, I know that painting a German forest and stream was a leap forward, but it's still a fucking boring-ass forest and stream).

"Much as a symphony is not a symphony without all the instruments even if the notes are all there. It requires a certain method of delivery which requires certain instruments."

You know what —shocker— sometimes I only listen to a couple movements at a time. And even worse, I hear them outside of a live context. Hell, I just went to a demonstration on active field control (which is about using computers to simulate different sound environments for live performances), and people there were bitching that the room didn't sound exactly as it looked, which was a travesty against the music.
But sometimes, I'd just like to hear the libretto. Or the single from the album. And if the artist doesn't like that, they can blow me.

"People aren't less literate and articulate than they used to be. Less literate and articulate people are more visible than they used to be."

Well, no. People still know about the same amount, but the fractured media environment means that there's less overlap— you can't count on every educated person to have read all of the Bible, for example. And for a while, authors were rockstars. Now they're not.

"This again just points out the problem, though, that people are more concerned with the symbol of the thing than with the thing itself. Do you want an education or do you want a diploma? Do you want to read a book or do you want to be able to tell people you've read a book?"

Or read an abridged book and get the salient parts out of it and move on. Let's be honest, if it's an amazing book, no one gets everything out of it on first read, right? I mean, look how much Derrida got out of "yes."
Arguing that the virgin, full text is necessary to get an education is elitist bullshit best peddled to publishers and tenured professors.

"Though I'm tempted to say, "A, of course! It's OBVIOUS!", I'm going to side with "neither" or "both." I don't think right or wrong makes sense in this context."

Shush. Next we'll be on about whether the reader or the authorial intent is more important when doing analysis. (OH NO, IT'S POMO!)
posted by klangklangston at 3:35 PM on May 8, 2007


WHY does it offend us that (some) people pretend to read books that they haven't read?

I'm not so much offended as befuddled. I just do not understand the purpose of doing this. If you think a book is boring, why do you want to pretend to be the kind of person who doesn't think this book is boring? Aren't you then trying to pretend to be more boring than you really are, by your definition?

If you're doing it to pass a class, I just think that's another step removed but essentially the same sickness. In that case you want to be recognized for your hard work without having to do hard work. You are seeking praise, but for something you did not actually do, and so the praise is ultimately without content, empty, meaningless.

You know, anyone can go into a martial arts supply store and buy a black belt. Anyone can go into a sports supply store and buy a trophy. These things are not the point. You are completely missing the point of your enterprises in life if you are placing the trophy above the actual accomplishment.

Or are we offended that they haven't read the books?

I'm often disappointed that people don't see the beauty or genius of books I think are brilliant, the same way I feel a little lonely when people around me don't get why something is hilarious. It is nice to be able to relate to other's sensibilities, and it can be disheartening when a huge portion of people seem to love stuff you cannot relate to, and seem to hate or avoid the things which you find most exciting. But in one sense this is why I've always loved books: they're direct connections to all those other people whose ideas I could relate to, and ways to escape the irritatingly vacuous options that are often much closer by (especially before cable/internet made options so much more diverse).

Still, I wouldn't say I'm offended at people for not liking things I like. I don't expect to agree with everyone. 'you do your thing, I'll do mine,' is how I usually approach it.
posted by mdn at 3:41 PM on May 8, 2007


Er, this thread is way too long. If only someone would, you know. . .
posted by flotson at 3:41 PM on May 8, 2007


So who gets to say what the right idea of literature is? And why should we obey him?

That is a funny way to put it. It is obviously bad to me. I don't like it because I think it serves no one to assume literature is just plot. It doesn't serve writers and it doesn't serve readers. It perhaps serves people who want to make money off intellectual or education insecurity, but that is (again, to me) a poor value. I can't compel anyone to agree, but why would I?

Honestly, it makes me think of people who are intimidated by art and museums because they know there is a larger discourse going on but wrongly infer that because they are not immersed in that discourse that they cannot take part or look at art and have an opinion on it. I want to grab them and say, "What do you think? That is valid." Of course context and engagement can teach you to like things you might not have enjoyed, but that doesn't make either response correct. To make literature about plot only limits it. And that is too bad.
posted by dame at 4:06 PM on May 8, 2007 [1 favorite]


I can't think of a single, common moral system that claims audiences (or readers) own attention to artists.

It's called Isufferedformyartandnowyoumusttooism, grumblebee.

WHO considers unabridged texts canonical? Most scholars? Okay, but why should I care? How does the fact that a work is canonical affect my experience of reading it? If it doesn't, is there some other experience that I should care about? If so, why?

Well, no reason to care, I suppose. It's just that the canonical text is going to be the sequence of words you'll find printed on the pages bound into the book you'll be able to pick up at your generic bookstore or library. So, unless you research the matter or have someone else thrust a different version upon you, what you're gonna read is the canonical text.

And as to the story about George and his neighbor's garden... well, I used the term "misguided," not "wrong." I understand misguided to mean that one is on the wrong track, not that one's been eaten by the fat worm of error. I find both interpretations you offer for the story about George to be perfectly valid.

If you WANT to define fictional truth as those associations certain people (the majority? scholars? you?) make when they read a story, be my guest. But I see no reason why I or anyone else should share this definition.

I don't want to define fictional truth at all. I don't think that fictional truth is an oxymoron, but it's not someting that particularly concerns me as a reader (though it does concern me as a writer). However, I don't think it's particularly controversial to say that I think different interpretations of a work of art can be different amounts of right. Hamlet interpreted as a reworking of the Oedipus theme vs. Hamlet interpreted as a prophecy of the future triumph of Scientology over its enemies. One is valid and the other is nutty. There's no reason to automatically accept the oedipal nature of Hamlet, but it's a theory that should be taken seriously. That Hamlet has nothing to do with Scientology, however, can be taken as a given.

Nutbar theories are nutbar theories. However, 99% of readers are not going to have nutbar interpretations of works of art.
posted by Kattullus at 4:22 PM on May 8, 2007


"No, I really don't. I was just doing a little pointless tongue-in-cheek ranting."

Isn't that what we're ALL doing? That's what I was doing. ...What? You think that I think that you should actually take me personally? That thought makes me laugh so hard my monocle just fell out.

"I could give you the whole spiel on why EVERYONE. SHOULD. READ THE CLASSICS. But it's something you buy or you don't. For most here, it looks like: don't."

In my not so humble opinion, almost everyone should be familiar with the classics, and actually stop to read the ones that appeal to them, but only if they care about interacting with other human beings on a level that doesn't make you feel kinda dumb.

Otherwise, you might end up like Kristy Kruger. Well... I'm not sure how many of "The Classics" she's read. Her deal was history. I mean, she didn't know history. She is a kickass folk guitarist by the way, and a dear friend, but not entirely knowledgeable about history, but anyone who has met her and enjoyed her music loves her anyway. So not everybody really has to read jack shit.

Most people should want to have enough familiarity with literature to be able to get jokes about them made randomly throughout culture. Oh, and to be able to wallow and wade in pseudo intellectual discussions, be they around some friend's dinner table, while mingling at a boring party that lacks alcohol, or here in a mefi thread. However, if everyone visited the same garden, and had to smell the same rose, that rose would eventually get pretty pissed off, evolve into a nose-eating killer and destroy the world. Do you want that on your conscience?

...I really need to work on my metaphorical examples.
posted by ZachsMind at 4:26 PM on May 8, 2007


Very slightly OT, but:

Dante's Inferno

*twitch* ...WHY do people only read the Inferno, as if it's a single independent book? IMHO, it's not even the "best" section of the Divine Comedy (that would be the Purgatorio, although I realize plenty of people disagree with me here).

going to a "great books" school -- Which one? (Asked as a Johnnie).
posted by gignomai at 5:16 PM on May 8, 2007


People aren't less literate and articulate than they used to be. Less literate and articulate people are more visible than they used to be.

Close. It SEEMS like less literate people are more visible now becuase we live now surrounded by them.

But what is literate? Think of all the ways people are saturated with the word and the means to express it. How much media we take in —and we deliver— today as opposed to one hundred years ago. A great deal of it is very rich.

We communicate less formally than in times pass because there is n entire world audience to talk to. Using six dollar words is not efficient.

Ignorance used to be a source of shame. I think ignorance (which is different, though similar, to literacy) is more celebrated today. People are proud they are stupid mother fuckers. They will hide that they are smart. That's a change.

Being a nerd used to mean you gave a shit about learning new things. People wanted their kids to be nerds.
posted by tkchrist at 5:28 PM on May 8, 2007


“You put things on a moral grounding”

Didn’t mean to - the implication is in the (unspoken) contract that when I absorb a work I will do so without distorting it before the fact - that is, before I’ve taken it all in. Only then would I have a right to criticize, judge, what have you. And indeed, there is some recognition that when I do criticize - that I’ve accurately absorbed the artists intent. (E.g. If I say Shakespeare’s work is pointless because he goes on and on about Hitler, people might suspect I’ve very much missed something.)

“I direct plays. I work very hard on them, and I desperately hope the audience will pay attention. But they don't OWE me attention”

Indeed they do. If at one of your plays I suddenly stood up and demanded a certain character be played by another actor or I wished the play would resolve more quickly I have no right to yell “Hurry it up” or something. I suspect I’d be ejected from the theater.

“Maybe you're just defining terms. Maybe, according to you, a symphony is not a symphony unless it contains A, B and C.”

My apologies - mixing terms here - symphony orchestra. I know some musicians who are quite serious about what defines a full orchestra. I was using it for purposes of analogy.
And the anaology is that one would not perform - say - Strauss’ Ein Heldenleben with just a flute, a tuba and a violin and call it Strauss’ Ein Heldenleben since that’s not Strauss’ original intent.
Similarly an sped up version of Dvorák’s Symphony No. 9 in E minor played - would destroy the work.

The point being an idea is an abstraction and must be given corporeal identity before it can be communicated. Musical composition is the crystalization of pitch, rhythm, timbre, etc. The act of listening - or in the general case here, reading - reverses the process by going back from the set form of the work back to the idea.
Composition is translation and listening is retranslation.
If you’re not listening - you’re not retranslating. It’s that simple.
In music, as in any art form, there are degrees of retranslation required and it varies from artist to artist how much work needs to be done on the part of the viewer/listener/ reader.
Sometimes the degree of work needed to retranslate inhibits the content. Sometimes content is the meaning, so we don’t need any mental process to divulge it.
In general you can have overmuch of one - where the prose or the notes seem excessive or where it’s too spare or where the expression of the idea has the same weight as the idea itself.
Some musicians say that there is a depth of meaning to, say, Beethoven beyond the notes. A perfect reading of the notes of one of Beethoven’s symphonies doesn’t evoke the work itself - meaning is added in the consciousness of the player and that permits various conceptions of the work.
In no orchestra would a musician be permitted as a reasonable interpretation of Beethoven’s work a piece that omitted huge chunks of the ‘boring’ slow parts and eliminated the more pedestrian instruments and instead relied heavily on cymbals and tympani and such.

“Specifically: what does it mean to irreparably damage a work? ... You must be talking about the EXPERIENCE a particular person has when he reads a work.”

A reader, like a musician playing a composer’s work is part of the art work itself - a book unread is meaningless. A reader brings his own meanings to a book while relying on the artists guidance for expression - same way an oboe player knows all the notes, has his own instruments, but cannot play without a composition. And if he plays carelessly, it damages the artist’s expression.

Ergo - yes, art requires attention to be art. Abridged attention = an abriged art experiance.
And no, I’m not claiming the alps themselves are ruined. But indeed, one has to learn how to ski in the first place to understand why whether would ruin the experiance at all.
And I’d agree that boorishness ruins a work as well. A musician must play the piece well, not jerk off over how skilled his fingerwork is. Chops aren’t just the technical end of it.
And really - who defines a “Classic” as a classic. And further - places the onus of reading it on others? Silly.

And indeed, people don’t have to like the same things. The point is - do you like or dislike something because of a genuine experiance where you’re fully aware of the meaning and the execution or is it because you don’t have the chops to play the tune that you think it sux.
And if you don’t have the chops to understand it - how then do you know what a quality work it?

The Divne Comedy is, in my estimation, the most perfect work of art ever created. Other folks might not think so. And indeed, that’s a matter of opinion.

I had a class that covered just the Divine Comedy and a big question was - why do people focus so much on the Inferno? Is it because of the attraction of evil and such?
Well, maybe in part, but a large part of it is - and Dante warns you and lets you know he’s doing it - the prose, meaning, references and execution become greater and greater as he goes on. Paradiso is an astonishing work. I’ve read most of the religious philosophy he references and it’s so dense I still find myself gleaning three or four meanings from the way he turns a phrase.
It takes work to read at that level (well, for me anyway). Not a lot of people are willing to invest the time and work to dig into what Meister Eckhart said about God back in the “whatever” century and why Dante would reference it in such a way that has bearing on the Catholic church and the nuance that shows where he’s defying dogma and how cunningly that was done such that it seems to relate to something else a Saint said - but in fact re-represents what the saint said earlier and so even that meta-level meaning is rarified and why such an artifice was necessary and so on and so on.
Well who cares?
But y’know, people tell me someone got kicked off of American Idol, I don’t much care either.
I think though the Commodia is great because classic works like that do demand a greater level of your participation and sort of work your chops for you while you dig the experiance. You are much more of an artist and indeed very much a participant in the art, it’s demanded of you - explicitly in Dante’s case (Hell, he even tells you to fuck off if you think you can’t make it).

American Idol or most of the blah literature (this happened, then this happened, then this happened, then this happened) is just passive entertainment.

Nothing wrong with that - but my gym analogy holds. Don’t tell me you’re working out just ‘cause you got a membership.
The extra conceptual experiance and connection to other minds must mean something to the human condition.
You don’t want to improve your mind, learn how to appreciate great art and maybe become an artist yourself, no problem.
But I still don’t think someone reading one of these abridged works will get anything out of it but the “story.”

Hell, it used to be illegal for certain people to read. You’d think people would wonder why.

“And if the artist doesn't like that, they can blow me.” - klangklangston

There’s comment to be made here concering the difference between oral sex and the more consensual pleasure of intercourse and the themes of the delivery of art as synthesis of artist and viewer-participant. But y’know, it’s above your head.

(yeah, that’s a play on the ‘snob’ theme, I don’t actually think it’s above your head, just being playful there...although I suspect an artist actually blowing the audiance might indeed sell more)
posted by Smedleyman at 5:37 PM on May 8, 2007


"I don't like it because I think it serves no one to assume literature is just plot."

Luckily, the minority of people who think literature is just plot is small enough to be a bit of a straw man. What people were arguing for was that the plot was the dominant feature.

"We communicate less formally than in times pass because there is n entire world audience to talk to. Using six dollar words is not efficient."

Big words are more efficient; that's the point of using them instead of many small words. Though I understand what you're saying in terms of speed of communication, but I think that informality comes from there being less time to sit and contemplate information.
posted by klangklangston at 5:39 PM on May 8, 2007


I don't like it because I think it serves no one to assume literature is just plot. It doesn't serve writers and it doesn't serve readers.

The thing that confuses me is "serves no one." If someone ENJOYS literature as plot, then thinking of literature that way serves them, doesn't it? Do you think that no one actually enjoys literature that way? (If so, then you're right: it literally serves no one.) Or do you feel that even someone who does enjoy it this way is somehow not being served? They're enjoying something that's bad for them?

I don't enjoy ONLY plot (though I've never come across a story that had plot and nothing else), but plot is one of the top two aspects I enjoy about stories. Plot and character. I enjoy other things, too, as I outlined above, but for me they are secondary. For instance, I enjoy language when it serves plot and character. (And I loath bad prose, because it distracts me from focusing on plot and character, which is why, though you'd think it would be a good fit for someone like me who adores plot, I mostly avoid genre fiction. So much of contain crappy wordsmithing.)
posted by grumblebee at 5:40 PM on May 8, 2007


People aren't less literate and articulate than they used to be. Less literate and articulate people are more visible than they used to be.

I'd argue the opposite, that people as a whole are more literate than they've ever been. I don't know about articulate, but certainly better as writers. Again, as a whole. I base my notion on skyrocketing literacy rates all over the world. I don't think that the best writers today are necessarily better than the best writers of yesteryear, but as the poor, mediocre and merely good artists of ages past fade while the great keep shining brightly, it's not an uncommon error to make that because one has only read the great 19th Century authors, therefore back then people as a whole must have written better then than they do now.
posted by Kattullus at 6:03 PM on May 8, 2007


the implication is in the (unspoken) contract that when I absorb a work I will do so without distorting it before the fact - that is, before I’ve taken it all in. Only then would I have a right to criticize, judge, what have you. And indeed, there is some recognition that when I do criticize - that I’ve accurately absorbed the artists intent. [emphasis added]

You're still using moral language. I don't want to get on your case about it, and I don't want us to mince words. I actually admire your passion.

I'm harping on the moral thing, because I think it masks something. I'm not claiming your being dishonest. You're not. I'm claiming that in these discussions, we tend to bring baggage that we don't haul out in the open. Perhaps we don't because we assume it's obvious and that everyone else shares it. My thesis is that it's not and they don't.

It doesn't make sense to say one has a right to do something without defining the system within that right exists. For instance, it's not true that I don't have the right to marry a 12-year-old. It IS true that within the US legal system, I'm not allowed to marry a 12-year-old. And IF I accept that system as a moral authority, THEN I don't have the right. Same if I accept the authority of certain religious or social systems.

So my question to you is, when you talk about contracts and rights, whose system are you talking about and why should I accept it? If you're talking about YOUR system, that's great. Then YOU feel like you have a contract with writers and don't have a right to judge their work without exploring it thoroughly. And because it is your system, it feels natural to you. But that doesn't mean everyone else shares it. I certainly don't.

So you either need to say, "Hey, I don't expect you or anyone else to share it. It's just how I feel." (In which case your post is an introspective exploration of the way you relate to art. Nothing wrong with that. I made some posts like that, above.) Or you need to explain to me why I should follow your system. Presumably, I should follow it because I have to (e.g. I'm wrong about my own psychology: I DO care about what the author wants) or because I'll achieve some sort of personal growth by doing so. (How? Why?)

In my system, I have no contract with any artist and am free to judge his work based on the color of the dustjacket. Other people are free to call my critique stupid or ban me from their book clubs and classes. (In a particular class or intellectual group, the members could make a rule to abide by your rules. I am free to opt out of such groups and read my way.)

I suspect that 90% of the strong claims people make in these discussions have no universal basis. Yet we (and I mean "we" -- my included) yearn to make them because art stirs up such strong feelings! I feel SO sure that "King Lear" is a great work. I feel it in my bones, and if you say it isn't, it feel SO much like you're wrong.

I love these feelings. I honor them. I think they are among the most important feelings on Earth (second only to love). That doesn't make them less subjective. I can't make them subjective. "King Lear" is a great play because I love it. My wife is a beautiful woman because I love her. That has to be enough. It is for me. For others, it's not. And I feel for them, but I don't think they're going to ever make their claims objectively true.

“I direct plays. I work very hard on them, and I desperately hope the audience will pay attention. But they don't OWE me attention”

Indeed they do. If at one of your plays I suddenly stood up and demanded a certain character be played by another actor or I wished the play would resolve more quickly I have no right to yell “Hurry it up” or something. I suspect I’d be ejected from the theater.


You would be ejected because you're making it impossible for other people to pay attention, if they want to.

But you have a perfect right to come see one my production of "Lear" and spend the whole time daydreaming about football. Even if you tell me, beforehand, that you intend to do this, you have the right to do it (though that would be a little rude).

Similarly, you're crossing a line if you rip pages out of MY copy of "War and Peace," but with your copy, rip away if you want. You own Tolstoy nothing -- at least if you're operating in my system.
posted by grumblebee at 6:06 PM on May 8, 2007


If I may step in...
This:
"if I absorb a work I will do so without distorting it before the fact - that is, before I’ve taken it all in. Only then would I have a right to criticize, judge, what have you..."
is totally correct, but the moral thing was just a word choice problem. I hope I am not distorting his/her words, but I think I agree and I think that it is equivalent and more precise to say that before one has experienced the whole work, in its original form, ones criticisms and judgments are as incomplete to the degree one has not experienced the work. So if you read the Cliff Notes on The Plague, you can still talk about it and stuff, but your ideas about it are not about The Plague, but a partial version. In my eyes, there's no reason not to read the full version unless it is truly daunting and only selections are used by even the most hardcore scholars (Gibbon, for example).

Basically I think if you have ideas about an incomplete version of the book, then your ideas are incomplete too. Not meaningless, but incomplete.
posted by BlackLeotardFront at 7:06 PM on May 8, 2007


"I don't like it because I think it serves no one to assume literature is just plot."

Luckily, the minority of people who think literature is just plot is small enough to be a bit of a straw man. What people were arguing for was that the plot was the dominant feature.


My point was that, to me, that is what abridgement implies. You don't agree. Okay.
posted by dame at 7:22 PM on May 8, 2007


People who like this sort of thing will find this the sort of thing they like

I think that prophecy has full-filled itself abundantly. ;)
posted by taosbat at 7:23 PM on May 8, 2007


So you're not just talking about reading a book. You're talking about the whole ritual of reading it, critiquing it, and sharing your critique with other people.

And you're claiming it's wrong (or a waste of time?) to engage in this ritual if you haven't read the whole book. Right?

I would agree that it's wrong IF you're being dishonest and claiming that you've read the whole book. It's wrong BECAUSE it's dishonest.

But I don't personally read for this reason, so it's hard for me to care. I read for myself -- not to have a conversation piece. I do enjoy talking about books with my friends, but that's a pretty informal activity.
posted by grumblebee at 7:24 PM on May 8, 2007


Next up: Prog Rock. You just don't have the time to listen to those long songs... A 40% cut will do the trick, apparently. Cocks.
posted by juiceCake at 9:10 PM on May 8, 2007


I think a 100% cut would be more appropriate for progressive rock.
posted by stavrogin at 9:17 PM on May 8, 2007


Dude, don't be frontin' like there isn't plenty prog that's best in radio edit. And Fleetwood Mac's Oh Well is a thousand times better before the six minutes of meandering.
posted by klangklangston at 9:24 PM on May 8, 2007


People who like this sort of thing will find this the sort of thing they like

I think that prophecy has full-filled itself abundantly. ;)


Here's another prophecy: within two years, we'll have substantially the same conversation again on another MeFi thread about abdridging the classics.
posted by darkstar at 11:04 PM on May 8, 2007


grumblebee,

I think Smedleyman's language in his posts was figurative. It's not much of a moral issue. You're right, all we are talking about here are the differences between a few approaches to reading.

Sure, when you buy a book it's yours and you owe no one anything. Same thing with a painting, destroy it if you like. On one level it exists as nothing more than an object of commerce. But that's not really what we're talking about and to bring that in muddles the issue.

I don't think art is anything more than a type of communication. One that requires a little more focus and a little more time. As communication there are things you can say about it, about its content, that are true. Perhaps not objectively provable but just as true as saying that one of the subjects of this post is reading. For that matter, I suspect that what you describe as objectively true, 'a certain number of letters', are either tautological or largely self referential due to the shared assumptions of the speakers, but that's another topic. Anyway, the point being, if you want to engage the author in the communication he offers you owe him your attention. You aren't obliged, it's more in the sense of, you will collect from the work, according to the care with which you read. Assuming of course that there is something there to collect.

People read for whatever reason they want. They don't need to justify it. My opinion though, and I suspect that many other who value the classics share this opinion, is that the classics are such because when you enter the space the author created and look to discover his mind instead of expecting him to titillate yours, the rewards are richer. Considering that you direct I imagine you know this for yourself. This kind of reading is superior because the rewards are superior. That this isn't self evident speaks to how degraded our culture is. We largely fail to distinguish the high from the low.

To go back to the subject of truth, denying that an interpretation is invalid or denying that one reading of a text is superior to another is avoidance. You can judge the work or the artist however you like, but some judgments are simply wrong. Or better yet, to paraphrase Cormac McCarthy's play, 'The Stonemason', "and if anyone thought different they were too ignorant too count.". Wrong or ignorant by what standard? Shit, I don't know. Call it contact with reality. There's no ultimate ground you can stand on and prove your point, perhaps it's just interpretation all the way down, but then that is so in all communication not just books. And we do communicate meaningfully and make valid judgments on claims all the time. Just because someone is communicating through a book and we can make ponderous statements about the hermeneutic circle doesn't change the fact that we are communicating in reading their work.

Perhaps in art we are misled into thinking judgments can't be false because instead of struggling for clarity many writers court ambiguity instead. While ambiguity hurts most non-fiction, in fiction it builds resonance. Claims about a work might need different phrasing in order to acknowledge this, but they can certainly be made.

It's your choice whether to attempt to understand the author as he intended to be understood or to skim it and pick out the parts that interest you. Just like when we have a conversation we can listen completely and be curious about what this person is about at that moment or we can mindlessly play along with the intent to ask a favor later. If there are two people, one with each approach, listening to a speaker, they will both have different interpretations of what that person was talking about. But are you really reluctant to say that one person's is, you know, better?

*****

mdn,

Just wanted to say I agree with most everything you've said. I read your exchange with LobsterMitten on the AskMe thread as well. It's the same issue.

If the classics have any value it is in the possibility of hearing what someone wiser had to say. Catching allusions in conversation or other works is nice but shallow. There's no profit to it. I think a cultural core is quite important but it doesn't have anything to do with accumulating trivia.
posted by BigSky at 11:05 PM on May 8, 2007


It's interestng to me that there seems to be an all-or-nothing false dilemma in some comments. That is, you either read the whole work (and get something valuable out of it) or you shouldn't wastee your time because you won't get anything valuable out of scanning, skimming, reading excerpts, reading cliff notes, reading abridgments, etc. Maybe that's not what's being said, but it sounds like it. I can think of several classics that simply defy this kind of characterization, though.

Take, for example, the Bible. If you read just the 13th Chapter of I Corinthians, or just the 5th chapter of Matthew or just the book of Proverbs, I daresay you could learn an awful lot of wisdom and take something away from the experience quite life-changing (regardless of your personal faith). Of course, you miss the vast canonical context in which those passages reside, but the idea that you couldn't gain something massive from those selections wouldn't seem to hold water.

Take, as another example, the Federalist Papers, #10 and #51. Those selections give you sigificant insight into the theory of our form of government, even without reading the whole work. No, you don't get as much context and understanding as if you'd read all of them, but you can surely gain something significant.

If you only read Hamlet's soliloquy, you could be moved in a profound way as the angst and agony of existentialism is laid bare before you. You really don't need - critically - to have the whole context of the rest of the play to be touched on a profound level with the issues Hamlet is grappling with in that passage.

Even a single passage from a classic work is enough to spark inspiration, reveal a truth or compel further thought. The power of the excerpt is probably greatly enhanced by being read in context, but even without the broader work enveloping it, we can still gain something from reading an excerpt like "All animals are equal, but some animals are MORE equal than others."

The last two pages of "Lord of the Flies" is extraordinarily powerful to me. The rest of the context for the book enhances it and sets it up, but those last two pages are not without power even in isolation.

I don't think it's being philistine to realize that something can be gained from classic works without feeling like I simply must read all 800 pages of a tome in order to gain anything worthwhile at all out of it. I've never read Joyce's "Ulysses" and expect never to feel the need to read it, either. But I have read excerpts and feel like I have gained a smattering of insight for why some people rave about its use of languages, detail, etc. That is a good thing, as far as I'm concerned.

There is so much to be gained from reading that it seems very artificial to propose that it has to be done only in certain prescribed tropes.
posted by darkstar at 11:41 PM on May 8, 2007 [4 favorites]


/me really needs to proofread...
posted by darkstar at 11:43 PM on May 8, 2007


I dunno man. I think the conversations are the best part. The only part. I love the way things intersect and cut across all human experience.

I don't mean to say that I read just for themes; I love, love, love scenes and sentences. But I love quoting them and mentioning them as well.

I love it when someone starts an article about something or other and drops an illustrative mention of a scene from a book.

I don't know. I guess "love" is what it boils down to.

I love the first kiss in Romeo & Juliet ("O, then, dear saint, let lips do what hands do; / They pray, grant thou, lest faith turn to despair.")

I love Macbeth's wailing ("Canst thou not minister to a mind diseased?").

I love comparing it to Adam's wails in Paradise Lost, just after the Fall ("Did I request thee, Maker, from my clay / To mould me man? Did I solicit thee / From darkness to promote me?").

I love that this wail is quoted in the epigraph to Frankenstein.

I love knowing that Mary Shelley came up with Frankenstein while on a boat with Lord Byron and Percy Bysshe Shelley, as they told each other ghost stories.

I love the fanciful depictions of Byron in Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell.

I love that Mary Shelley's Mom wrote brilliant tracts that heavily criticised Burke.

I love that line in Burke where he goes, "Your politicians do not understand their trade; and therefore they sell their tools."

I love knowing that Bill Clinton held up One Hundred Years of Solitude in a class upon being asked by the lecturer what was so interesting that he couldn't peel his eyes away.

God help me, I could go on and on; any one of us could. Our tragic species hasn't done well for itself, not really, but at least we can attest to having recorded our memories. The memories burned deep inside our DNA of the wolf's shadow flitting across our ancestor's lairs; the memories of Plato's cave infused in centuries of written metaphysical wrangling; the memories of Gollum's shadows brought to bursting life in Peter Jackson's movies.

Yes, I'll swear for my part that it's all about the conversation; the intoxicating murmurings of human souls, all holding but the common thread of memory through the insufferable weight of existence. Who's to say how best to experience a bed of roses? I don't care whether your fingertips are hooked under the soil or busy holding a stem, or whether you're picking off petals to arrange them in a pattern or lying still to soak up the music of eternity; do what feels right. Don't let anyone tell you how to love.
posted by Firas at 12:03 AM on May 9, 2007


Eliot's Tradition and the Individual Talent bears neatly as well, nicht whar?
posted by taosbat at 12:25 AM on May 9, 2007


I read for myself -- not to have a conversation piece.

I don't talk to people about books -- a book bore is one of the more boring bores -- but I do like to read about books and authors. I wouldn't want to read about Moby Dick knowing that everyone else over the years had read and written about a different book. My conversation is with 150 years of other readers responding to the book as written by Melville.
posted by pracowity at 12:41 AM on May 9, 2007


a book bore is one of the more boring bores

How much book would a book bore book, if a book bore could bore books?
posted by Kattullus at 4:59 AM on May 9, 2007


BigSky, I'm going to compare some of your comments to things that many religious people say. I'm scared to do so, because religion is such a hot-button topic. Please note that I'm not saying you're religious (or not). Nor am I making any negative (or positive) claims about religion. I'm just using religion to make a point.

My religious friends (not just an expression: I haver several) tend to make the following claims:

1. God exists.

2. I may not be able to prove He exists, but we all FEEL He exists.

3. You can, I suppose, be an atheist, and you can certainly be a theist, but if you say you're agnostic, that's just avoidance. You either feel God exists or you don't.

As you might guess, I disagree with all of these statements, though I have sympathy for all of them. I'm an atheist, so naturally I don't believe God exists; neither do I feel He exists. (So at least one person doesn't have this feeling.) I do agree that if one has a strong feeling of God, it's a bit misleading to say, "I'm agnostic." But it's possible to really not know one way or the other.

So I disagree that refusing to label one interpretation as right and another wrong is NECESSARILY avoidance. I don't do it to avoid. I do it in an attempt to be intellectually rigorous. I'm agnostic about interpretation in the same whether or not chocolate is better than vanilla. I can tell you which I prefer, but I don't know what it means to call one better.

My guess is that you're saying, "Come ON! Interpreting Hamlet as an Oedipal story is right and interpreting it as a story about hamburgers is wrong! And you KNOW that."

You're right in a way. I don't know it, but I do feel it. So I'm a little like the religious guy who can't prove God exists but feels it in his bones. And it seems to me like everyone else should feel it too. I certainly can't imagine the workings of a mind that wouldn't feel it.

But I'm not willing to go the extra mile and claim that one interpretation actually IS right and the other is wrong. The closest I can come is to say that one makes sense to me while the other is weird. You may think I'm avoiding or mincing words, but I'm not. To me, "right" and "wrong" are reserved words. They signify whether or not something is following rules in a formal system (e.g. legal or ethical). For me to use right to mean "standard" and wrong to mean "eccentric" debases those words.

I don't think art is anything more than a type of communication. One that requires a little more focus and a little more time. As communication there are things you can say about it, about its content, that are true.

You're talking about "communication" as if it's an object with certain properties. I don't think of it this way. I think of it as a process:

1. Person A forms an idea in his head.

2. He attempts to convey that idea to person B using words (or pictures or whatever).

3. Person B hears the words, and, as a result, certain neurons fire in his head.

4. This results in B seeing specific images.

Note that there is NO connection between A's idea and B's images. B's images may happen to coincide with A's idea, but they don't necessarily do so. And there's certainly no "wire" that runs rum A's head to B's. B simply hears noises and that causes his brain to form images.

I'm not claiming that the images are random. They are usually DO have a relationship to A's ideas. This is because both A and B, being human, have similar brains. It also helps that, in general, conversation is very forgiving and improvisational. I may be thinking about my dog when I say, "it's wonderful to love and be loved." We don't generally consider it an error if, when you hear this, you think of your girlfriend.

But there's no guarantee that A's idea will form in B's brain. If A makes poor word choices, B will probably receive a jumbled message. And even though one human tends to be very similar to another, there's plenty of plasticity to the human mind. So differences in brain structure and may make it impossible for B to receive A's message as he intended it to be received.

An example:

A: It's Friday. I'm going to go out after work and get shit-faced.

B: I'm so sorry.

A is trying to convey how happy it is that it's Friday, and how he intents to celebrate. But B only drinks when he's depressed, so to him, getting "shit faced" must mean A is in pain.

Some people think these misunderstandings occur but they're rare. I suspect they're frequent. I think we've built all sorts of conversational structures to wash over the fact that we're often talking apples and oranges.

The question is: is B wrong? Certainly, he's wrong about A's feelings. But imagine A isn't a real person. Imagine A is a character in a book that B is reading. B interprets A as being depressed. That's not what the author intended, but does it follow that B is wrong?

Many here will probably say yes. I say no. He's only wrong if you defined right as "what the author intended." You're welcome to do that, but it's an arbitrary decision. Why the author and not the reader? Or the scholar?

This brings us back to "what's the point of reading?" And I think most of us agree that these isn't one point. You may read for a completely different reason from me. If your goal when reading is to communicate with an author, then I can see why you'd privilege his opinion. That's not my goal when I read, so I don't care about his opinion.

I care about the images that his words spark in my brain. If those images happen to coincide with his intentions, great. If they don't, great. All I know is that they made me laugh, cry, etc. That's why I read. To feel.
posted by grumblebee at 7:41 AM on May 9, 2007 [3 favorites]


BILBO: O HAI U CAN HAZ RING OF POWER
FRODO: O RLY?
BILBO: YA RLY
FRODO: INVISIBLE RING! I SCARD. GANDALF U CAN HAZ RING?
GANDALF: DO NOT WANT

TOM BOMBADIL: I HAZ YELLOW BOOTS KTHXBI

ARAGORN ET AL: IM IN UR FELLOWSHIP, HELPING UR HOBBITZ

GANDALF: PH34R MY L33T SK1LLZ0RS!
BALROG: HAHA PWND

BOROMIR: I CAN HAZ RING?
FRODO: NO WAI

TREEBEARD: HAI I DEFEATED UR ORCS LOL

GOLLUM: I CAN HAZ RING?
FRODO: NO WAI

FARAMIR: U CAN HAZ KING?
ARAGORN: NO WAIT

SHELOB: HAHA PWND
SAM: NOW I CAN HAZ RING
FRODO: AFK

GOLLUM: I HAZ RING BUT I EATED IT
FRODO & SAM: HAHA UBERPWND

FRODO: THIS IS GAY GONNA CHILL WITH VALAR L8R
SAM: I CAN HAZ MAYOR?

posted by goodnewsfortheinsane at 9:40 AM on May 9, 2007 [8 favorites]


“You're still using moral language.”

Again, my apologies.

“Perhaps we don't because we assume it's obvious and that everyone else shares it. My thesis is that it's not and they don't.”

Yeah, I leave a lot unspoken.

“Or you need to explain to me why I should follow your system.”

It’s not my system per se. You can in fact distort the meaning of the piece or ignore it - whatever you like. But that is not a true experience.
F’rinstance - if instead of reading your reasonable arguments and attempting to clarify my position relative to them I claim you are attacking me and misquote you or quote you out of context - or indeed make something up - that is not conducive to discourse.
I could not say we’re genuinely conversing or there is actual communicating going on.

What I’ve appeared to overlooked - or at least assumed within my argument - is that everyone wants a genuine experience. And indeed, you’re right, they don’t.
But I’ve always seen duplicity as something to be wholly avoided.
It doesn’t occur to me that someone would purposefully distort something for any sake much less convenience IF they want a genuine experience of any given work.
And of course the answer is - they don’t want a genuine experience of the work.
I see how it could look like I’m asserting some moral or self-centered position without that predication.

As regards the 12 year old - I think what I’m saying is closer to the mechanics of it rather than the legal or rectitude of the act. So let’s make her a 6 year old and the guy really well hung. I’m saying you can’t have intercourse with her if that’s the objective. It’s not physically possible without damaging her vagina. “Sex” is something else entirely. My point is raw mechanics.

And to further clarify the above - many things have merely a surface meaning. Some have a greater depth of meaning beyond the words themselves (Old Man and the Sea comes to mind).
To force a transition from a work that has depth and nuance to one that has purely surface meaning - whether by omission or whatever - is doing damage to is as the method of expression is inseparable from the work itself.
(Just restating the earlier point).
Ergo - you’re not going to “get” what the artist is saying even though you might understand the plot.
It’s an inferior experience of the author’s thoughts/ideas/ etc.

If someone doesn’t care that it is inferior - that’s neither right nor wrong in any moral sense.
But it’s disingenuous to say you’ve read Moby Dick if you’ve only leafed through the abridged version.
And the contract - social contract in the sense I’m using it - only holds if your earnestly trying to experience the piece rather than just getting the gist.
For example:
“In my system, I have no contract with any artist and am free to judge his work based on the color of the dustjacket.”

So if I said - based on your words and thoughts here - that all your plays and indeed everything you will ever write is bullshit without ever seeing them - I’m free to do so?
And indeed, you’re right in the sense you’re using it, I am.

But that’s in no way valid criticism or honest method of dialogue.
And we’re often so used to that level of dialogue that we don’t see it for what it is. Particularly on metafilter. There are more than a few folks here who engage in earnest discussion. But there are some folks who’s positions boil down to “I’m better than you” or “I know more” or “People like you suck” etc.

They’re free to do so, but that’s not rational discourse.
I’m often mistaken for a contrarian. But in fact I’m trying to reach a resolution or understanding - it’s that confrontation that many people feel they have to protect themselves or their pet ideas from. So they resort to acrimony or what have you.

“But you have a perfect right to come see one my production of "Lear" and spend the whole time daydreaming about football.”

Certainly - but again, I haven’t really seen “Lear” then, have I?
And that’s the point.
Similarly - many people said they objected to f’rinstance the movie The Last Temptation of Christ. And they had never seen it. Well, what then is their criticism based on? What genuine experience have they had with the film? None.
Therefore their opinion - based on their experience or lack thereof - is always going to be inferior to mine.

The trouble with paring the books down is that people might think they’re absorbing the essence of the work when in fact they’re not. Indeed, they’re not getting the chance to make that determination.

Not to get Kantian here, but your speaking as though the work of art exists on it’s own as a thing of beauty - “beauty is not a property of an artwork or natural phenomenon, but is instead a consciousness of the pleasure which attends the 'free-play' of the imagination and the understanding.”

That free play is derived from the artist - audience relationship. Something beautiful requires conscious understanding and imagination on the part of the audience to exist. It goes without saying the artist has to create something worthy of that. But where his work is omitted - that potential does not exist.

And beyond the simple fact of the omissions - to address your point on who makes the “system” decision - it is precisely that they themselves aren’t ripping the pages out of Tolstoy or going to “Lear” and daydreaming. They’re not taking an active part in the work but delegating it to a proxy, therefore (as with The Last Temptation of Christ) how do they know what they would have liked or not?
Ergo - their experience is an inferior one. And the art is incomplete.
I again apologize for the moral verbiage, but the expectation is that the viewer will be some sort of participant. It’s as if I went to “Lear” and on the advice of someone else wore blinders and listened to a ball game.
I’m not arguing it’s wrong to criticize or not like something or create whatever system you desire to ferret out what you might like or not. The point being it’s *you* doing it. That’s the expectation of the artist.
Indeed, it’s why so many people get put out of kilter by censorship.
What is wrong with having the government choose for you what you should see and what you shouldn’t if you are a willing participant in that process?

The first thing that comes to mind for me is a priori nullification of a work. Similar to The Last Temptation of Christ and the people who had never seen it.
If I criticize a work, if I see your “Lear” and I demand the donkey be removed and argue the car chase scene is ridiculous, my criticism is all the more stronger because I can knowingly target what I disagree with.
If I don’t see it - the cuts I demand are by definition arbitrary.

Same thing here. The cuts themselves may not be arbitrary relative to the artist and the people making the cuts. But it’s your point that people should decide for themselves - and indeed the introduction of a proxy between the artist and the audience is anathema to art.
And for all the same reasons government censorship = inferior art. That someone is willing to subject themselves to it is not a valid enough reason to do it.

(+what BigSky sed quite well: “you will collect from the work, according to the care with which you read.”)

“ That's not what the author intended, but does it follow that B is wrong?”

This bolsters my point about the instrumentation and the symphony orchestra analogy. Is B wrong because of interpretation or is B wrong because his toolkit is inadequate for a proper understaning?
You see, if B can summon all the instruments of a full orchestra - he can play the peices that demand it. If he can’t - while his interpretation is not invalid - it’s predicated on a lack of understaning (or in this case an omission - where the books are missing big chunks). This is quite a different thing than the wide variety of interpretation that exists within the same piece of music among different musicians and orchestras.
In that sense of course, no one is wrong in their interpretation. They’re still creating art through that synthesis.
But an interpretation derived from a misunderstanding or lack of instrumentation is quite plainly not a real synthesis and so, yeah, wrong.
posted by Smedleyman at 11:32 AM on May 9, 2007


popechunk writes "Maybe they'll do the Bible next."

There are so many abridged versions of the bible people put out guides to choosing the right picture book version.
posted by Mitheral at 12:13 PM on May 9, 2007


"But that is not a true experience."

HAHA PLATONIZM!

Sorry to get all lollerskates, but the problem with all of that is there's no objective way to prove that an opinion is better than another. There're more compelling and less compelling opinions, but that speaks to a lack of evidence making the opinion less compelling, not that the opinion itself is "true" or "false." Someone can say that Spiderman 3 was shitty without having ever seen it, and they could be right. They could say so acting only on reviews of the movie, a brutal abridgment if there ever was one, and still be right— and support the point! People can even disagree with each other and still both be right, and all of this speaks against any objective "truth" to opinion.

Further, like a religion, you're arguing that there is a one true "truth" and interpretation, which necessarily either makes all others wrong. Even granting that as true (which I don't believe it is), there's still the problem of epistemology: how do you know you've found the right one? You have to assume, under your system, a perfect understanding of the work and assume that the audience brings nothing to the interpretation. Which means that unless you're the author, you have no chance of ever having the "right" opinion.

Seems like a lotta work over ultimately being wrong.
posted by klangklangston at 12:14 PM on May 9, 2007


What I’ve appeared to overlooked - or at least assumed within my argument - is that everyone wants a genuine experience. And indeed, you’re right, they don’t.
But I’ve always seen duplicity as something to be wholly avoided.


I don't know what a "genuine experience" is. I know that I want an experience. I'm not sure I care whether it's genuine or not. Does genuine just mean "reading the whole book"?

You can in fact distort the meaning of the piece or ignore it - whatever you like. But that is not a true experience .... that is not conducive to discourse.

What do you mean by "conductive to discourse"? Discourse with whom, the writer or with other readers? When I read, I'm not having a discourse with the writer. In a discourse, we'd be talking back and forth. But he can't hear me at all. As for me, I really don't care what he thinks. I just care about the experiences his words give me.

I'd agree that if your aim, when reading, is to have conversations with other readers, then everyone in the conversation must agree to follow certain rules. If they don't, the conversation will be pretty meaningless. One sensible rule is to all discuss the same text. I'm not sure why this must be the unabridged version, but it could be.

Personally, this is not why I read. I sometimes discuss books with people, but not often. I mostly read for a personal experience.

By the way, I agree that if someone says, "I've read Moby Dick," he should expect most people to take that to mean he's read the actual book in full. If, in fact, he's just skimmed it or read the Cliff Notes, he's lying and lying is offensive. To me, the fact that it's offensive has nothing to do with literature. It has to do with dishonesty, and it's as offensive as any other kind of dishonesty.

Aside from that, I don't know what you mean by "duplicity." I don't care about the author or discourses, but I'm not being duplicitous or engaging in non-genuine experiences when I read. If you choose to define "genuine experience" in a specific way, you can of course, and then maybe I'm not having one. But they aren't you just saying that I'm not reading the way you want people to read?

many things have merely a surface meaning. Some have a greater depth of meaning beyond the words themselves (Old Man and the Sea comes to mind).

What do you mean by "have a meaning"? How can an object -- which is what a book is -- have a meaning? The author may have had a meaning when he wrote the book, but he didn't produce a meaning. He produced words on paper.

Those words MIGHT evoke a meaning in my brain. And that meaning MIGHT resemble what the author intended. But what if I don't care whether or not it does? (I don't.) Am I not having a genuine experience? I certainly want a book to be meaningFULL to me. I don't really care if that meaning connects with someone else's meaning.

The first thing that comes to mind for me is a priori nullification of a work. Similar to The Last Temptation of Christ and the people who had never seen it.
If I criticize a work, if I see your “Lear” and I demand the donkey be removed and argue the car chase scene is ridiculous, my criticism is all the more stronger because I can knowingly target what I disagree with.
If I don’t see it - the cuts I demand are by definition arbitrary.


Your interest in art seems strongly connected it issues orbiting around a particular work: what people are saying about it, etc. And that's fair enough. You're in good company here. Just note that not everyone relates to art that way. And for those of us who don't, many of the issues you bring up (duplicity, etc.) aren't important.

My interest in in the work itself and the sensual experiences it gives me. I'm not implying that art exists in a vacuum. I do sometimes get caught up in the stuff that swirls around a book. But I probably do so much less than you do. And when I am interested in external items, I'm mostly interested in them in as much as they enhance my sensual pleasure in the work.

I like knowing history, because it TENDS to heighten my pleasure of historical novels. "Tends" is key, because it's not invariably the case. I've actually had works damaged for me by knowing too much about the artist's biography or some other external detail. For instance, I have a hard time listening to Wagner without thinking about Nazis. To some, that makes Wagner more interesting. But I suspect that those are people who care more about the swirl than about the work itself. I care about the work and what it does to me.

Of course, it's possible to care about both, but I have to be careful because one does affect the other.


So if I said - based on your words and thoughts here - that all your plays and indeed everything you will ever write is bullshit without ever seeing them - I’m free to do so?

I'm happy to entertain any sort of idea (I'm enjoying this discussion), but you'll probably bump into a wall if you keep trying to appeal to my feelings as a director.

Yes, I want people to pay attention to my work. No, I don't think that they (necessarily) should or that they're bad, misguided or stupid if they don't. It's sort of like how I wish someone would walk up to me and hand me a million dollars. I really wish this, but I don't think anyone is obligated to do it, and I don't think they're bad people because they don't.
posted by grumblebee at 1:45 PM on May 9, 2007


It's interestng to me that there seems to be an all-or-nothing false dilemma in some comments. That is, you either read the whole work (and get something valuable out of it) or you shouldn't wastee your time because you won't get anything valuable out of scanning, skimming, reading excerpts, reading cliff notes, reading abridgments, etc. ...

Take, for example, the Bible.


Two things: first of all, the point of abridgments isn't that you didn't read the whole thing, but that you are told that this is basically the "point" of the book repackaged - that the book is essentially represented by the parts that are printed, and what was taken out was just the "unimportant" stuff. No one is forcing you to read the book to start with; sure, you can read excerpts if you want - but it's not the same as reading a book.

second, some books are collections and some are unified works. A lot of books probably fall slightly in a murky area, or at least people will disagree to some extent, but it is certainly different to read part of the Bible than it is to read part of Moby Dick. The Bible was written by dozens of different authors, pieced together over centuries, not originally intended as literature - it is as much an investigation of culture & history to read the bible as anything. The other example you provide is even less intended as one piece of writing.

So, I would say, a book that is written as a unit for some reason or other - whether to complete an argument or to bring a story to fruition or to provide what the author considered the right poetic balance - ought generally to be read as a unit, not because it's morally right or culturally expected, but because it's most likely to be aesthetically most valuable. You can ask what makes something aesthetically valuable, but that is whole philosophical debate unto itself (and a fascinating one, I might add; Kant's theory is that it is the free play between the imagination and the understanding that creates the feeling of pleasure we have at viewing beauty, so it is both our ability to comprehend and to visualize that excite the aesthetic sensibility.)

As smedleyman said above, the more involved we are, the more we enjoy it. For me this is certainly true - watching a sitcom may 'entertain' me in that I am distracted & my attention is engaged, but when it's over, I basically feel like time was wasted. I was not really part of the experience. When I go to see a great piece of theatre, it makes me think, draw connections, understand characters - and afterward I still feel alive with that mental energy. (Not that it's TV=bad, theatre=good; TV can be interesting and thought provoking, and live theatre can be deadening shit, too). If you read the whole book, you're engaging with the author, and getting all the mental details s/he's providing. If you read an abridgment, you are reading something boiled down and meant for informational or perhaps entertainment purposes, but not for aesthetic purposes. It'd be like someone showing you paintings by making "cleaned up" versions - a neater, simpler version of van gogh's sunflowers would still get the point across, right? it'd be better than nothing; you'd have your cultural 'touchstone'...

That is different from occasionally reading excerpts. I taught Emerson in one of my classes last semester & when we read The American Scholar I gave the students a copy of Hamlet's soliloquy so we could talk about the reference to "sicklied o'er with the pale cast of thought." We spent a good 30 or 40 minutes on the speech without any assumption that they already knew the whole play, because one doesn't need to know the story or characters in the play to understand the philosophical and psychological questions being struggled with in the monologue. But surely no one would claim they've read Hamlet now.

I read your exchange with LobsterMitten on the AskMe thread as well. It's the same issue.

If the classics have any value it is in the possibility of hearing what someone wiser had to say. Catching allusions in conversation or other works is nice but shallow. There's no profit to it. I think a cultural core is quite important but it doesn't have anything to do with accumulating trivia.


Yes, absolutely. There seems to be a strange kind of lack of cultural intimacy, almost, where the concern is being able to "pass" but not really having a common cultural identity. everyone's more worried about how educated we seem than whether we actually have anything to talk about - I find this even with fellow grad students sometimes. The point of having a shared background is so that you don't have to cover the same ground again in an argument (eg, in philosophy, you can refer to previous thinkers in order to start from a presumed point of agreement - dangerous presumption, of course, but that's another thing...) or so you can enjoy the multiple layers of something - a joke or an allusion that is more enjoyable if you can make the connection. But the point of that joke or alllusion, or the argument, should not be to point out that you have this shared background; it should be to explore something for its own sake. The reference points make something easier or better, but they shouldn't be everything.

Like that story about George? Sure it's a reference to the garden, but if that's all it is, that is one lazy, forgettable writer.
posted by mdn at 2:46 PM on May 9, 2007


"Someone can say that Spiderman 3 was shitty without having ever seen it, and they could be right. They could say so acting only on reviews of the movie, a brutal abridgment if there ever was one, and still be right— and support the point! People can even disagree with each other and still both be right, and all of this speaks against any objective "truth" to opinion."

Hardly.

In what sense could "being right" have meaning without a standard to measure against? If your position is that there is no objective truth on these matters then you have no reason to use the word "right" in this context. It is meaningless to you; simply redundant for "he expressed his opinion".

What is an absolute fact is that communication between people happens. There is a shared meaning, a common standard. We can talk about truth being contextual, or impossible to define, or not admitting of proof. Fine. But it's presence is made known through our interaction with others.

P.S. Your last line is one of the more condescending comments I have come across recently, but you make up for it by completely under cutting your own argument. Congratulations?

*****

"I care about the images that his words spark in my brain. If those images happen to coincide with his intentions, great. If they don't, great. All I know is that they made me laugh, cry, etc. That's why I read. To feel."

This is a self-centered view. I'm skeptical that you actually believe it. Way up thread, I talk about the difference between art and pornography. I've got nothing against porn, but the difference between it and art is not just a matter of content, it's a matter of relating, and again one is superior.

Do we look to avoid misunderstandings only for pragmatic reasons? I doubt it. I think there is a desire to engage beyond just consuming and being stimulated and that's the distinction I suspect you're overlooking. It's why the author's intent matters, it's why we listen without tuning into to our internal monologue. It goes hand in hand with being present.

Agnosticism of interpretation doesn't privilege the greatest minds over the mentally deficient. There is something wrong there. We can be humble about the distinctions we make and recognize the possibility of making them but to refuse to make the distinction actually hampers communication. If we can't label one interpretation of Sophocles as being more correct than another are we really taking it seriously? Why can't we talk about art with the same criteria of accuracy and honesty that we have in our other conversations? And no, I don't talk about books very often at all. But this 'my point of view is just as good as his' is deeply offensive to me.

Whether a reader is 'wrong' or not is a tough and somewhat confused question. It would be better to say there has been a miscommunication between authorial intent and the reader's imagination. Sometimes the author fails. And of course the viewpoint to know all of this is impossible. So take it back to the classics. We assume in reading that every word is a deliberate choice. If the returns from reading under that assumption are substantial, then over time it takes on the status of a classic. From that assumption you can say that one interpretation is better or truer than another. Abridging the book undercuts what allowed the book to become a classic to begin with. The reader is forced into a cheaper experience than the one that could have been available.

And again this points to the failure to distinguish the high from the low.
posted by BigSky at 3:00 PM on May 9, 2007


"In what sense could "being right" have meaning without a standard to measure against?"

Are you saying that Spiderman 3 is not a shitty movie? I have seen it, and it is.

"Way up thread, I talk about the difference between art and pornography. I've got nothing against porn, but the difference between it and art is not just a matter of content, it's a matter of relating, and again one is superior."

Superior how? Not to get all Lebowski, but that's just, like, your opinion man. And frankly, while you can make an argument that there's a difference between art and pornography, you're going to have to admit that they're Venn circles— you can have pornography that is art.

"And again this points to the failure to distinguish the high from the low."

Sorry, there is no high or low anymore. Frankenstein was a low novel, Andy Warhol used commercial "low" techniques, Jim Thompson's a better writer than Jonathan Franzen.
posted by klangklangston at 3:58 PM on May 9, 2007


When I compared porn to art it wasn't about depictions of sex. Porn, in this context via some dead white males, means a narrative that focuses on getting you to identify with a character or at least emotionally invested the whole way through, while art requires critical distance, at least moments of it. It's not the end all and be all of ways to talk about art but it seemed relevant here.

"Superior how? Not to get all Lebowski, but that's just, like, your opinion man."

But that's just your opinion. You're making an absolute statement when you have declared that it can not be done. It's what I meant when I said the last line of your previous post undercuts your argument.

There is a high and low, and furthermore you know it. Personally, I agree about Jim Thompson vs. Jonathan Franzen but it's irrelevant. When you compare the fingerpainting efforts of someone with an IQ of 70 to Goya, the difference is not just in the medium. The work reflects a difference in perception, a difference in their engagements with the world. We can and do recognize it. Sometimes cultural values adjust, or distort, our perception. Some people are better at distinguishing the difference in quality than others, but it's there.

Difference between high and low is not about class or technique. It's about presence, level of engagement, wisdom, call it whatever you like.
posted by BigSky at 4:24 PM on May 9, 2007


Me: I care about the images that his words spark in my brain. If those images happen to coincide with his intentions, great. If they don't, great. All I know is that they made me laugh, cry, etc. That's why I read. To feel.

BigSky: This is a self-centered view. I'm skeptical that you actually believe it.

Me: Yes, it's self-centered (obviously), and yes I do absolutely believe it. Did you intend to chastise me for being self-centered? Surely we're all self-centered about some things. I help people, give money to charity, etc. I save one major thing for myself: my reaction to the stories I read.

BigSky: I think there is a desire to engage beyond just consuming and being stimulated and that's the distinction I suspect you're overlooking.

Me: Your passive case confuses me. "There is a desire..." Who has this desire? Everyone? The majority of people? Some people? Actually, I agree that some people have these desires, and if those people want to be happy, there are reading strategies (which you and others outline) that they should employ. Other people would waste their time by employing them, because those strategies wouldn't get them what they want.

BigSky: It's why the author's intent matters...

Me: Again, to whom? Under what circumstances?

BlueSky: it's why we listen without tuning into to our internal monologue. It goes hand in hand with being present.

Me: I suspect I created a confusion by being so "me centric." It's NOT the case that when I read I'm engaging in an internal monologue about me. I'm NOT intensely aware of myself. I'm NOT relating the story to things in my own life. At least not if I like the story. If I'm doing any of those things, I'm probably bored by the story.

When I read an exciting story, I AM present: in the moment. I react. I get scared; I laugh; I cry; I'm puzzled; etc. THAT'S what I want. It's me centric not because I think of it as a story about me. No. It's me centric because it makes me feel intense feelings, and those feelings are all I care about (e.g. I don't care if the author intended me to feel them).

BigSky: Agnosticism of interpretation ... actually hampers communication.

Me: Possibly, but that's like saying Atheism hampers praying. There either is a God or there isn't. If there isn't, then I'm not going to pray. Similarly, I'm not going to do something I feel is irrational because it helps conversation.

BigSky: If we can't label one interpretation of Sophocles as being more correct than another are we really taking it seriously?

Me: What? The interpretation or the writing of Sophocles? I suspect you mean the latter. Are you suggesting that we don't take a work seriously unless we read a bunch of critiques of it, weigh them against each other, and then rank them? What if we just read the work it self and are moved by it? Maybe that doesn't count as "taking it seriously." If not, then I don't care about taking it seriously. I just care about being moved by it.

I would agree that unless you're willing to think critically about various points of view, you're not taking the DISCUSSION seriously. But I'm not into the discussion. I'm into the work. One can be into both. I'm not.

BigSky: Why can't we talk about art with the same criteria of accuracy and honesty that we have in our other conversations?

Me: What conversations would those be? Most conversations I find myself in aren't based around accuracy or rigor. They're based around social meta-messages, stream of consciousness, and general, improvised remarks based on some shared topics. Scientific discussions can be exceptions, but one can't apply the tools of Science to stories (because one can't gather imperial data, do experiments, etc.)

BlueSky: It would be better to say there has been a miscommunication between authorial intent and the reader's imagination.

Me: How would we ever know if there was such a miscommunication? In order to know this, we'd have to somehow know the authors intent. How can we know this? By asking him? How can you ask Shakespeare his intent? Even if he was alive and he told us his intent, how could be sure he wasn't lying, pulling our legs, or misremembering his state of mind when he was writing?

Are we supposed to guess intent from clues in the text and biographical details? I can't accept that. In that case, we're imposing a POSSIBLE intent based on an interpretation (which may well be wrong) and then using that faux intent to judge whether or not one critical response is better than another one. It's the blind leading the blind. It's like making a wild guess that John's birthday is today and then getting mad at Mike because he didn't get John a present.

BlueSky: We assume in reading that every word is a deliberate choice.

Me: We do? I don't. I assume that the words are a combination of deliberate choices and accidents. But then I don't much care how they came about. What matters to me is what effect they create.

BlueSky: If the returns from reading under that assumption are substantial, then over time it takes on the status of a classic.

Me: So we start by assuming that a work was planned, down to the last word. Then -- based on that assumption -- we get returns (rewards?), And if enough people apply this process and keep getting great rewards, the work eventually becomes a classic,

I don't know what makes you think this is what makes a work become a classic. It's pretty hard to define "a classic," but assuming we all have a general idea what it means (probably a bad assumption), I suspect the process that makes something a classic is varied from one classic to another and, in any case, is due to the complex interactions of many factors. There's been a ton of scholarship about what made Shakepeare's works classics, and it supports my theory.

I do think that it can be fun (and personally meaningful) to study a work word-by-word and phrase-by-phase, noting how each part contributes (or doesn't) to the whole. This needn't coincide with an interest in authorial intent. One only needs to feel that a work has a grand, unifying effect (it makes me sad, etc.) and then check out how its various parts contribute to that effect (or don't). The unifying effect (or "spine" as we call it in the theatre) need not be "what the author intended" (which we can't know), and it might not even be purposeful. It's just a realization that the work happened to have a certain effect and an exploration as to why it did.

Similarly, we can feel that a forrest is "ominous" and look into why it is so without believing that an intelligent mind created it for that (or any) purpose.

As you might guess, I don't believe such effects (themes/spines) need be the same for everyone or that one is better than another. Or even that a reader should necessarily take an interest in them.

BigSky: If the returns from reading under that assumption are substantial, then over time it takes on the status of a classic. From that assumption you can say that one interpretation is better or truer than another. Abridging the book undercuts what allowed the book to become a classic to begin with. The reader is forced into a cheaper experience than the one that could have been available.

Me: With respect, I think there's a hole in your logic. If I understand you correctly, you're saying...

a. X, Y and Z lead a work to become a classic.
b. based on this, we can say some editions are classics and some aren't.
====
c. therefor, an edition that contains X, Y and Z is better than one that doesn't.

The missing piece is...

a. X, Y and Z lead a work to become a classic.
b. based on this, we can say some editions are classics and some aren't.
c. classics are better than non-classics
====
d. therefor, an edition that contains X, Y and Z is better than one that doesn't.

Which is, of course, a subjective call.

===

I should make it clear that, in general, I hate abridgments. I hate them because the cutting is (usually) done for commercial, not artistic reasons. And I don't like that, because it generally leads to the cut work having weaker sensual effects than the original.

So (I think) we're in agreement about that.
posted by grumblebee at 5:15 PM on May 9, 2007


"But that's just your opinion. You're making an absolute statement when you have declared that it can not be done. It's what I meant when I said the last line of your previous post undercuts your argument."

How, exactly? I mean, there's no real way for you to refute my statements, which limn the edges of epistemology, without going further into solipsism.
I mean, what's my contention— that there is no objective criteria for evaluating aesthetics. What's your contention? That there is, and that pornography is inferior to art. If you think you prove your case or disprove mine, go for it. But be aware that there's no objective arbitration you can appeal to— ultimately, you must convince me as a person. Which, again, would seem to imply that communication exists in a subjective sphere.

I know you wanted to get all whiny about condescension, but whatcha gonna do? Prove that there is a single objective set of criteria and then I'll stop treating you like you're confusing pretension and preference for objectivity.
posted by klangklangston at 5:28 PM on May 9, 2007


This has been a really fun, enlightening conversation. Can we keep it civil? Thanks!
posted by grumblebee at 6:23 PM on May 9, 2007


grumblebee,

Self-centered is a poor word choice; I was thinking that you were phrasing it in terms of consumption instead of interaction. It conveys a lot that isn't appropriate here. I'm not a scold. I enjoy your posts. I'm just surprised that that is your position. That reading (or any art for that matter) is a relationship just seems fundamental to me. Apparently, you read a lot and pay attention. To me that goes hand in hand with considering the intent of the work. So, it surprises me that's your position and that being on the same page with the writer of a book you take seriously is irrelevant. Would it be as rewarding an experience if it was the result of random chance? Would you invest the same kind of care and attention? For me, both times no.

Desire to engage just means to interact and be present. Books which respond and reward that are better. I know that not everyone has this view. It doesn't dissuade me from considering the work which is as not just "more engaging" but superior. But I'm repeating myself and you know my view.

As for the syllogism like arguments, neither one is what I think. I'm saying that an abridgement more likely than not prevents a reader from getting out of it precisely what made it a classic. I don't expect you to agree. After all, implicit is the notion that there is something to get out and that when you don't get that your reading is inferior to one that does.

*****

klangklangston,

I do understand that there is no objective arbitration for appeal. Your statement about the nonexistence of objective criteria is claiming the ground of objective knowledge. Doesn't that seem paradoxical to you? I'm looking at it as similar to someone stating, "It's all relative.". Well, that's kind of an absolute statement, isn't it?

My contention is that we do recognize standards. Can I state them for you? No, I can't. All encapsulating definitions are an impossibility, on that we're agreed.

What it comes down to for me, is that we operate as though there are. We may have disagreements and misunderstandings, but we use the words 'right' and 'wrong', 'better' and 'worse' in meaningful ways. We point to something that is acknowledged and recognized. If you claim that it is all a matter of convention and rhetoric, OK. There is no proof I can lay down. But a meaninglessness then comes over your own words. What does it mean for someone to be 'right' about Spiderman 3? If no objective criteria is possible, then there isn't a 'right' at all, the word no longer applies. How could anyone be "ultimately wrong"?

So, I'm not going to lay out criteria in propositions. It can't be done. But that doesn't mean we can't talk meaningfully about values in art. Differences in engagement and ways of relating to a work seem like a good way to approach the subject. If you think that it's simply pretension and preference, well, many agree with you. But I'm skeptical that any of them really believe it. Upthread I talked about the value of the classics being the possibility of hearing from those wiser than yourself. If you think there is a difference in wisdom (or whatever you want to call it) between people, and I believe that just about everyone does, this is a way to talk about that difference.
posted by BigSky at 7:53 PM on May 9, 2007


"I do understand that there is no objective arbitration for appeal. Your statement about the nonexistence of objective criteria is claiming the ground of objective knowledge. Doesn't that seem paradoxical to you? I'm looking at it as similar to someone stating, "It's all relative.". Well, that's kind of an absolute statement, isn't it?"

No, it's not. It's claiming that absent evidence of objective knowledge, and within the grounds of communication (avoiding the absolute solipsism that you seem to keep wanting), those claiming an objective truth must prove an objective truth. Since they cannot, we must proceed as if there is none.

This is, by the way, the same reason that governments should be explicitly secular— while there may indeed be a God, that proposition is both unprovable on its face and damaging to proceed with as an assumption.

"But a meaninglessness then comes over your own words. What does it mean for someone to be 'right' about Spiderman 3? If no objective criteria is possible, then there isn't a 'right' at all, the word no longer applies. How could anyone be "ultimately wrong"?"

No, a meaninglessness doesn't come. Why? Because I'm communicating with a person who has agreed to abide by a general set of rules for conversations, and within those rules, there is meaning. What you're arguing is as wrongheaded as arguing that because words are essentially arbitrary collections of sounds, they have no meaning. So, within that framework, it's entirely possible to be right or wrong, but that framework itself isn't based on objectivity, but on contract.

Which does bring us to acting as if there is a shared meaning, because there is in a meaningful way.

"If you think that it's simply pretension and preference, well, many agree with you. But I'm skeptical that any of them really believe it."

See, but this is where you lapse into bullshit. Differences in valuation of art is not simply pretension and preference, though preference and personal experience are going to be primary in anyone's experience of art. What I have a problem with is the attempt to dress up criticism into universal systems— both Joshua Reynolds and Hegel (and Plato before him) attempted to do so and failed, because the project is essentially untenable. You can attempt to appeal to a system that gives ranking, but there is no system of ranking that isn't ultimately arbitrary.
As such, appeals to wisdom are wrongheaded— experts are generally worth listening to because they've experienced more and are able to articulate and explicate, but not because their opinions are inherently more true. Stanley Crouch has heard more jazz than I ever will, but he's full of shit on the avant. Likewise, in painting Joshua Reynolds held that the objective criteria for a painting was how much it idealized the subject (with the belief that invention could through synthesis grasp the Platonic ideal forms). He knew a great deal about classical painting, and articulated it well, but was ultimately wrong.
I've also heard fantastic opinions on art and music from people who were relatively ignorant and didn't have the cruft of accumulated academic interpretations.
So no, appeals to authority don't do it for me. The strength of an expert comes from the skill and presentation of their ideas, but their opinions carry no weight at all (see also— the mountains of people who are brilliant and wise in one aspect of their lives, and total morons in others).
posted by klangklangston at 8:37 PM on May 9, 2007


Which is, of course, a subjective call.

what you're bringing up is the question of aesthetic objectivity, which I talked about briefly above, and which I noticed after posting Smedleyman had also addressed, via Kant's theory of Judgment. If you've never read it, you might find it interesting. Consider at least that although tastes differ, they do not differ so much as to be random, and when they do differ they tend to do so according to a hierarchy.

That is, the elites will look down on the low culture, but the masses won't look down on the high culture. They'll shake their heads at it or say it's no better, or actively choose something they think is more fun or more real, but they won't claim the "low" culture has higher artistic value. The problem can be determining exactly what we mean by artistic value, but there's no need to limit it to immediate sensations when human beings communicate & experience longer term / more in-depth exchanges of meaning as well.

Kant describes beauty as this interchange between imagination and understanding (not reason, but the direct grasping that is understanding), so it's subjective in that we must experience it internally, but it's objective in that it is the same for any creature with those two capacities, which means any creature which can conceptualize (understand) and re/produce images (imagine) will experience the feeling of aesthetic judgment (or beauty).
posted by mdn at 9:12 PM on May 9, 2007


"They'll shake their heads at it or say it's no better, or actively choose something they think is more fun or more real, but they won't claim the "low" culture has higher artistic value."

Kant obviously never spent time with teenagers. They'll talk about things being more real, or authentic, or harder to do, or any number of aesthetic systemic judgments by which they'll privilege low culture over high.

Even then, there's no way of proving that it's not cultural values that guide us in what we consider high or low or good or bad.
posted by klangklangston at 9:56 PM on May 9, 2007


klangklangston,

It's safe to say we aren't going to come to agreement here. It's an old discussion, and I don't mean old as in a few days. We are in two different camps. Here are some last thoughts.

You want to put the burden of proof entirely on me. No. You are making a radical claim here as well. That there is truth and value in art has been widely accepted for many years. Stating there is none is not some default position that we fall back to without greater proof. If anything, it goes the other way. That's why the paradoxical nature of your claims do matter. I'm sure you disagree. It's an old discussion.

When I was talking about wisdom there was no appeal to authority. I am not interested in Sir Joshua Reynolds' opinions about the relation of realism and idealism. Despite my participation here, discussion of what art 'should' be, doesn't interest me very much. The point I was trying to make is that there are people in the past, and present, who were/are talented, wise, perceptive, whatever word you want to use. Making contact with those minds by reading their novels, looking at their photographs, etc., is the whole point. (That last sentence being the point of dissent between grumblebee and myself.) So when I say that just about everybody does make the distinction between wiser minds, at least implicitly, it's not in terms of paying respect to some figure's aesthetic theory. It's more along the lines of numerous people recognizing that the King James translation is damn good English. But that doesn't mean it reduces to popularity either. It's the quality.
posted by BigSky at 7:46 AM on May 10, 2007


"You want to put the burden of proof entirely on me. No. You are making a radical claim here as well. That there is truth and value in art has been widely accepted for many years. Stating there is none is not some default position that we fall back to without greater proof. If anything, it goes the other way. That's why the paradoxical nature of your claims do matter. I'm sure you disagree. It's an old discussion."

Oh, save me from the appeal to the masses! Widely accepted for many years? Ach, ya flat-earther! The Bible was accepted as literal truth for many years. Doesn't mean it's so.
You can dither with a revamped "Atheism's just another religion" argument all you'd like, but you're fundamentally misunderstanding the nature of proof and where the burden lies (were I shouldering such a heavy sack, I'd be inclined to look to ditch it anywhere I could as well).

"Making contact with those minds by reading their novels, looking at their photographs, etc., is the whole point. (That last sentence being the point of dissent between grumblebee and myself.)"

That last sentence finds no favor with me either. It, again, assumes a universal goal to art and denies the sensual. Stop playing at jonmc; realize that you've gotta append a "for me" to your proclaimations (at which point, I'll have no further disagreement). But connecting with the mind of an artist is one of the lower heads on the totem pole for me— I don't really care what Weegee was thinking when I'm arrested by his picture of a crowd around a murder, except in an ancillarily instructive way toward my own work getting better.

"It's more along the lines of numerous people recognizing that the King James translation is damn good English. But that doesn't mean it reduces to popularity either. It's the quality."

Two things— again, that quality is subject, and the King James is often ridiculously tortured and terrible as writing. And I can say that as someone who's had to read the whole damned thing. Everyone likes Ezekiel, but Zephaniah sucks.
posted by klangklangston at 8:52 AM on May 10, 2007


“Does genuine just mean "reading the whole book"?”

Genuine means exactly what it says. Either you’ve experianced - for example - a sneeze or an orgasm or you have not. Either you’ve taken part in reading or you haven’t. One can have genuine experiances of a work in part certainly. Don’t extrapolate my argument into something contrary to yours simply to oppose something. Do me the courtesy - as you have previously - of allowing that I have common sense.
One who reads only cursorily or for purposes other than reading - e.g. to show off to others or some such - is not having a genuine experiance any more than someone who seduces someone else just for sex is engaging in an artifice as well.


“Discourse with whom, the writer or with other readers? When I read, I'm not having a discourse with the writer. In a discourse, we'd be talking back and forth. But he can't hear me at all.”

Here then - would be a precise example of what I mean. You have just proved my point perfectly.
You see - you have not read carefully enough to understand what I’ve said and/or you are reading with an eye towards winning the argument - or you’re too stupid to get it (which I very much doubt).
My example was - and please read this carefully this time - that if I quoted you out of context ON METAFILTER IN THE CONVERSATION WE ARE HAVING AT THE TIME - that would not be conductive to discourse between us. Nor could I say we are genuinely conversing or communicating with each other - (indeed, I’m hard pressed now) I could not - were I to assert that you stated “I love Hitler” when you had not that I was genuinely trying to converse with you.

My exact quote was: “F’rinstance - if instead of reading your reasonable arguments and attempting to clarify my position relative to them I claim you are attacking me and misquote you or quote you out of context - or indeed make something up - that is not conducive to discourse.
I could not say we’re genuinely conversing or there is actual communicating going on.”

Your response was: “What do you mean by "conductive to discourse"? Discourse with whom, the writer or with other readers? When I read, I'm not having a discourse with the writer. In a discourse, we'd be talking back and forth. But he can't hear me at all.”

Do you see the error you’ve made there? Do you see how you have inadvertently made my point?
As you go on from this point you’ve made in error as a rebuttle to my argument - your argument, no matter how cogent it is - is ultimately flawed. Because it’s predicated on a clear mistake. Not only is discourse with a given author or other readers of a specific work is not what I meant - it’s not even what I said.
Therefore you have not really experianced my meaning - you didn’t “get” it. And so futher explication on your part on that point is “wrong.” No matter how solid the reasoning, afterward, is.

I don’t know I can make that more clear.

“And I don't like that, because it generally leads to the cut work having weaker sensual effects than the original.” posted by grumblebee

And how could a work with weaker sensual effects lead to a wider or richer experiance on the part of the reader? (I grant that it’s possible, but extremely unlikely.)
What you’re not seeing is that your assertion right there is implicit in my argument. I’ve treated what you’ve just stated as a matter of course. You’ve treated any extrapolation from that position as a relative. And yet - again implicit in your statement - your experiance is generally lessened when a work is cut.
Well why would it be different for anyone else? The argument I’ve stated (apparently poorly although I’d say you’ve missed some key points) is that it is generally going to be a worse experiance for a reader because of the - as you’ve stated - weaker sensual effects than the original.
I’m not arguing in favor of some sort of coercion however.
But I’d add that the sensual effects and the ultimate experiance would be all the more diminished because the readers are not choosing for themselves what to omit.


“Someone can say that Spiderman 3 was shitty without having ever seen it, and they could be right.”

And yet, they’ve never experianced the movie....so....

“Further, like a religion, you're arguing that there is a one true "truth" and interpretation, which necessarily either makes all others wrong.”

No, I’m differentiating between interpretation based on experiance and interpretation based on arbitrary assertion. If a person cannot play notes with an instrument, is that person a musician?
Well, we can call them one, but there is a difference between two musicians interpreting a piece of music differently and some guy who’s never picked up an instrument before and can’t read music and - most importantly having never heard the peice - asserting his random blaring of a trumpet is as valid an interpretation of the Jupiter Symphony as any other.
He has quite simply not experianced it.
There’s a case to be made in other parts of this argument. But I have no wish to make them since there’s no need - given that the subject at hand concerns omission within a work not differentiation of interpretation.
And my contention, again, is a person who has read something carefully and fully has had a richer experiance than someone who has not read carefully or has only experianced an abridged version.
This experiance can be ‘good’ or ‘bad’ or whatever - but it’s certainly ‘more,’ one experiance has, as grumblebee said, weaker sensual effects than the original.

Furthermore, I assert that if one’s motivations to read an abridged work are due to inferior reading skills and a wish to falsify erudition - that’s a poor substitute for reading something less demanding and something more likely enjoyable.

Any other considerations - e.g. not liking the dustjacket - are cedable as the presumption is one dislikes the dustjacket for reasons other than not possessing the desire to actually read the book.
Judgement of a work by other sources would fall into that category as well. You don’t like the previews - don’t see the movie. But if you pretend you don’t like the previews because you know you’re not going to understand the movie, or you get someone to explain the plot to you so you can pretend you’ve seen the movie that’s a duplicitous act. You haven’t genuinely experianced the thing. And you’d only be shortchanging your self not to develop the skills so you can actually appreciate the thing.

E.g. it’s taken me years to develop an appreciation for classical music. And there’s still plenty I don’t get and don’t know. But there’s a difference between affecting an air of knowlege and actually knowing or indeed, pretending to like something. It’s not a genuine experiance - when in fact, it could be if you work on it and try to get it. Which I’ve done to a degree and now I can listen to a piece and dig it and maybe skip the parts I think are slow - but I skip based on my tastes not on a failure of understanding or on what some proxy thinks I’d not like.


“I mean, what's my contention— that there is no objective criteria for evaluating aesthetics.” - posted by klangklangston

So, given your other statements - even in a vacuum, any utterance on aesthetics = any other utterance on aesthetics - and - even where it distorts the aesthetic subject.

Ok...

“Smedleyman is totally right about everything, forever” - posted by klangklangston

Thanks.

But indeed, the point being there’s a difference between conflicting subjective viewpoints on quality based on taste or other differences and arbitrary distortion or omission that one finds conveniant.

“Are you saying that Spiderman 3 is not a shitty movie? I have seen it, and it is.” - posted by klangklangston

I refuse to see Spiderman 3 because I don’t wish to see movies about space and cowboys and 3 hour static shots of midgets eating pudding. I get too enotionally involved.
posted by Smedleyman at 10:37 AM on May 10, 2007


And indeed - given that there is no objective criteria for evaluating aesthetics - by what criteria are these books being edited and sold?
Why cede the editing of a work to someone else’s subjective aesthetic? And given that the subjective aesthetic has to be as wide as possible - why not insert a mustachioed evil nemesis character opposing Ahab and his search for the whale, since evil mustachioed nemisis’ are so popular? Also, car chases are popular, why not have a chase of some sort?
Why not rework the book into something else entirely?
Clearly I’m being absurd to illustrate the point, but they do this with movie adaptations all the time. The aesthetic criteria there is the force of the market.
If commercial forces are the bottom line, why not rewrite Moby Dick with all sorts of sex and action in it? Why not write a book only vaguely connected to whales, make it commerically as marketable as possible, but call it ‘Moby Dick’ to capture a bit more of the market?
Well, they won’t because clearly - they are marketing these books to people who want them for reasons other than enjoying reading.
Perhaps some readers want to shoehorn themselves into works that are otherwise inaccessible and that’s great. But I don’t see why they wouldn’t pick up a regular copy and just skip bits themselves.
And that’s the conflict with these works - not the objective/subjective perspectives of aesthetics, but the subjective vs. subjective by proxy or subjective with an ulterior motive that’s at issue.
Certainly anyone who earnestly wants an abridged version to get themselves into reading something like this is approaching art from a very different and I’d argue valid perspective as opposed to someone trying to impress people.
posted by Smedleyman at 11:09 AM on May 10, 2007


"And indeed - given that there is no objective criteria for evaluating aesthetics - by what criteria are these books being edited and sold?"

Umm... Subjective ones.

"Why cede the editing of a work to someone else’s subjective aesthetic?"

Because while meaning is subjectively constructed, communicating that meaning requires two parties, and many people believe that they're helped in achieving clarity of communication by the advice of professionals.

"And given that the subjective aesthetic has to be as wide as possible - why not insert a mustachioed evil nemesis character opposing Ahab and his search for the whale, since evil mustachioed nemisis’ are so popular? Also, car chases are popular, why not have a chase of some sort?"

Well, first off, the subjective aesthetic a) in a real sense can't ever be wide, as it's predicated on individualism, and b) in the sense you're using it, doesn't have to be broad to be successful. Many people who enjoy car chases and mustaches have other books that cater to them more effectively. And, and this is the crucial point, those other books are no more or less art or worthy than Moby Dick by any objective criteria. But they're not called Moby Dick because the cultural association of Moby Dick would make them sell fewer copies. I mean, if you're going to appeal to the market, at least be rational about it.

"Well, they won’t because clearly - they are marketing these books to people who want them for reasons other than enjoying reading."

No, they're marketting them to people who want the books for other reasons than reading every word of Moby Dick. Anything else is unsupportable presumption and harumphery.

"Perhaps some readers want to shoehorn themselves into works that are otherwise inaccessible and that’s great. But I don’t see why they wouldn’t pick up a regular copy and just skip bits themselves."

Because it's more convenient? I mean, c'mon, this isn't a hard thing to understand so long as you move away from classist assumptions on the nature of art.

"No, I’m differentiating between interpretation based on experiance and interpretation based on arbitrary assertion. If a person cannot play notes with an instrument, is that person a musician?"

Yeah, they call 'em drummers. (Or violists, if you want more snark).

"Well, we can call them one, but there is a difference between two musicians interpreting a piece of music differently and some guy who’s never picked up an instrument before and can’t read music and - most importantly having never heard the peice - asserting his random blaring of a trumpet is as valid an interpretation of the Jupiter Symphony as any other."

Yes, there is a difference.

"He has quite simply not experianced it. "

But that's not it. The difference is in how much you like what you hear.

"You haven’t genuinely experianced the thing. And you’d only be shortchanging your self not to develop the skills so you can actually appreciate the thing."

Or not. You could be avoiding a giant over-rated shitpile. And you've experienced it on as genuine a level as you need to. Does that mean that other people have to listen to or agree with your uninformed opinion? Nope.

"But there’s a difference between affecting an air of knowlege and actually knowing or indeed, pretending to like something. "

Not to me, not really. If you pretend to like Wagner, while honestly finding him bombastic, and I pick up some albums of his on your recommendation, it's still up to me to decide whether I like 'em. Whether or not you truly do, I both can't know and can't particularly concern myself about. If you derive more pleasure from lying about your tastes than you do from listening to music, well, if I knew, I'd give your opinion less weight in the future, but it won't affect my enjoyment of the art.

"Which I’ve done to a degree and now I can listen to a piece and dig it and maybe skip the parts I think are slow - but I skip based on my tastes not on a failure of understanding or on what some proxy thinks I’d not like."

Hey, that's great. But no one is going out and removing all unabridged works, so why not read what someone else thinks are the best parts of Moby Dick? Or have you never bought a greatest hits album? It's the same thing. I even have some collections of a single conductor or soloist that someone else abridged for me, and they're pretty good. Do you own every version of The Four Seasons ever recorded? Me neither. I've trusted recommendations, and some I've liked and some I haven't liked. But I don't claim the total understanding— I keep the ones I like and get rid of the ones I don't. And that understanding has come with input from others, and sometimes I agree and sometimes I don't.

"So, given your other statements - even in a vacuum, any utterance on aesthetics = any other utterance on aesthetics - and - even where it distorts the aesthetic subject."

If you want to harp on common sense, it wouldn't kill you to display some. But ultimately, yes, in that all statements on aesthetics must be finally analyzed by me based on my tastes, and every other person does the same thing. Which is why I'm not overly concerned by your red herring fake quote, in that I have faith in the faith that it'll be regarded incredulously by everyone else reading this.

"But indeed, the point being there’s a difference between conflicting subjective viewpoints on quality based on taste or other differences and arbitrary distortion or omission that one finds conveniant."

How so? And, further, how is it meaningful?

"I refuse to see Spiderman 3 because I don’t wish to see movies about space and cowboys and 3 hour static shots of midgets eating pudding. I get too enotionally involved."

OK. More power to you. I didn't see any of those things in the movie, but if that's what you've gleaned from what you've heard about it, maybe you wouldn't like it. Or maybe you would.
posted by klangklangston at 12:05 PM on May 10, 2007


I sort of agree with BigSky in a backhanded way. I go by faith in grumblebee's notion of Darwinian selection. That is to say, if X thing is highly commended, and I don't like it, I don't assume in a knee-jerk manner "well this sucks and everyone's wrong." (Of course I tend to reserve that grace for 'classic' stuff, not contemporary.)

I do also agree that ultimately what matters is the individual's subjective take. And I definitely agree that high art and low art have a strong element of sociological construction implicit in the judgement.

I just have a default anti-snobbery position, personality-wise, which is why I'm into the whole subjective personal take is the 'real' take thing.

But you're going to have a difficult time convincing me that the New York Post is the same quality of material as the New Yorker.

The biggest problem with this discussion is that shades of gray aren't being admitted.

Um. Carry on.
posted by Firas at 3:00 PM on May 10, 2007


"But you're going to have a difficult time convincing me that the New York Post is the same quality of material as the New Yorker."

Well, it's not the same quality for you. But fans of alliteration find more to savor in the Post than in the New Yorker, and I can assure you that writing snappy alliterative headlines is a skill.

"The biggest problem with this discussion is that shades of gray aren't being admitted."

Subjectivism's all about shades of gray! It's just about letting individuals construct 'em! It's democracy with differénce!
posted by klangklangston at 5:03 PM on May 10, 2007


FLATWARE OF LEGUMES!!!!!
posted by tkchrist at 1:08 AM on May 11, 2007


I just have a default anti-snobbery position, personality-wise, which is why I'm into the whole subjective personal take is the 'real' take thing.

But you're going to have a difficult time convincing me that the New York Post is the same quality of material as the New Yorker.


Someone with my point-of-view wouldn't try to convince you. I don't rank art, except for categorizing it into "stuff I like" and "stuff I don't." I have some friends with (in general) similar tastes to mine. So, in edition, I sometimes classify work as "stuff they will probably like" and "stuff they won't."

====

you have not read carefully enough to understand what I’ve said and/or you are reading with an eye towards winning the argument - or you’re too stupid to get it (which I very much doubt).

Just to be fair, there is another possibility: you didn't express yourself clearly. I'm not saying that's true. I'm saying that before you assume I'm at fault, you should remember that "it takes two to tango."

One or both of us miscommunicated. I'm not sure who. I'm sure you feel that you were perfectly clear. I feel the same way. For whatever reason, even when clever people try their hardest to communicate clearly, miscommunication often occurs (without anyone necessarily having a perverse agenda, such as "winning the argument.") This is one of the many reasons I'm uninterested in authorial intent.

My example was - and please read this carefully this time - that if I quoted you out of context ON METAFILTER IN THE CONVERSATION WE ARE HAVING AT THE TIME - that would not be conductive to discourse between us. Nor could I say we are genuinely conversing or communicating with each other

Agreed. 100%! In fact, compare your remark with one of my earlier ones:

I would agree that unless you're willing to think critically about various points of view, you're not taking the DISCUSSION seriously. But I'm not into the discussion. I'm into the work. One can be into both. I'm not.


So, yes: if an author has a point of view, and he's tried to inject this point into his fiction, and then I ignore it and instead run with my own point of view, I am definitely behaving in a way that is not conductive to a conversation.

My point is that I don't care. I don't read to have a conversation.

You do, and that's great. But you seem -- and maybe I'm misreading you hear, so please correct me if I'm wrong -- to go beyond saying, "that's just the way I read." You seem to be saying, "my way is the right way." I can't react to that except to say that if there is a "right" or "best" way to read (and I'm not sure what the criteria would be for that), then I don't care about it, because I get orgasmic pleasure out of the way I read.

Furthermore, I think your way of reading is an illusion. I don't say that to denigrate your way. Mine is an illusion, too. I read so that I can feel like I'm, say, on Mars or in Elsinore, and clearly I'm not. You read (I think) so that you can feel like you're conversing with Tolstoy (or whoever), and clearly you're not.

At least it's clear to me that you're not. It sounds to me like you believe that you are. I don't think you're stupid to believe this. I think many people -- and quite a few who are much smarter than me -- believe this. But I think it's wrong.

And -- strangely enough given your last post -- I think you proved why it's wrong: a discussion isn't a discussion if A is talking apples and B is interpreting oranges. You accused me of interpreting oranges to your apples (and maybe you were right). I assert that when you read Shakespeare's apples, you are highly likely to interpret oranges.

You probably disagree with this. It seems like you think there's a high likelihood that one can get to the heart of an author's intention.

I fundamentally disagree with that, and I think my disagreement is based on reason -- not faith -- but suspect neither of us will ever sway the other on this point. Which is fine. But I think it's the locus of our disagreement. I'm not interested in discussions with authors (via their works) because I don't think such discussions are possible (and I'm not constituted to bask in imaginary conversations).

My argument is that you can't converse with an author because:

1. real conversations involve back-and-forth dialog. This is a vital component, because talking (and writing) is a terrible way to convey ideas from one brain to another (alas, it's the best way we have). Word-based conversations are riddled with transmission errors. The best way to minimize these is via back and forth. It's vital that I be able to (a) listen to you, (b) ask questions, and (c) hear your responses to my questions.

2. even if you form a theory about what an author means, you have no way of testing that theory. Unless he's a living author, and you can ask him questions. In which case you ARE in a real conversation with him, which is great, but it's a conversation that's taking place outside of the book.

Now, you can have a FEELING of genuine conversation without getting any confirmation. This happens all the time. You pointed out earlier that I missed your point entirely. If so, we weren't having a genuine conversation. (One in which your idea gets reproduced in my brain.) But I FELT like we were. It may have been an illusion, but it's a strong illusion. I think it comes from the innate tendency to anthropomorphise: to imagine minds when none are present (or, in this case, to imagine you understand minds that are present, when in fact you misunderstand them).

If you value that FEELING (which I say is an illusion and you, I think, say is real) I'm happy for you. I don't think you're weird. In fact, I'll admit to being the eccentric one (in the same sense that I think I'm eccentric for not believing in God -- He doesn't exist, but I'm still eccentric in disbelieving in him). But I'm not wired like you, and I don't have that feeling. And yet I still love stories more than anything on Earth.

There are is another potential problem (to readers like me) with intent:

Imagine that I COULD know the mind of an author. Given that, say I read a book and it makes me extremely happy. Then the author tells me that he INTENDED the book to be a tragedy. Now what? Is he right or am I right? I talked to someone about this once, and she said, "He's right, because he's the author."

If we run with that assumption for a second, we find that he's right -- the book is a tragedy -- and yet it makes me happy. So I guess I'm wrong to be happy.

But I'm still happy.

At which point I can't help wondering what right or wrong or better or worse means in this context. And why intent matters. It DOES matter if my goal is to get into a conversation with an author -- to mine his intent. It doesn't matter if my goal is to read a book and have a sensual experience. But even if my goal is to have the conversation, I'm still going have the feelings that I have. I can't stop them.

One last problem with intent -- and it's the biggest problem for me: remember, my goal, when reading is to experience sensually. I know that you know what "sensualism" means, but let me be really clear as to what it means to me: it means having, through fiction, the same kinds of feelings that I do in real life when a stimuli bombards one of my five senses.

If I'm reading, say, a novel set in Florance in the 1880s, I want to see, hear, taste, smell and touch Florance in the 1880s (or feel like that's what I'm doing). And I want those sensations to be as strong (or strong) as the ones I get in real life. That's not the only reason I read, but it's the main reason I read.

Each time I think about the author, it lessens these sensations. If I can forget that the world is fabricated -- if I can believe it's real -- then the sensual aspects are heightened. (A real monster is scarier than a fake monster).

I've discussed this with people before, and some have said. "Come on! When you're reading a story, part of you always knows it's a story." I disagree with this. I'm REMINDED that its a story from time-to-time, but in the moment of a specific, sensual sentence, I often get so wrapped up in the sensuality of it that I think of nothing else. It's like seeing a really sexy woman. She might be an animatronic or a serial killer, but for a moment, when I first lay eyes on her, all I know is that I'm turned on.

Even if these people are right and I'm always aware that a story is "just made up," there are various levels of awareness. I'd rather be just a little aware of this than a lot aware of this. The more I can drive artifice to the back of my mind, the more the front of my mind can be pleasured by the story's sensations.

There are many things that can burst my bubble: sloppy prose can do it, because bad prose makes me aware of the fact that the author made a mistake. At which point, I'm thinking of the author -- not his world. Same problem with plot holes or poorly crafted character psychology. But I also don't want to actively engage in thinking-about-the-author's-intent, because it too shatters the dream.

Given that I think intent (or knowing it) is an illusion, I give equal status to it and the kind of illusions that I cherish (the sensual ones), and I choose the illusions that make me happy. You should choose the ones that make you happy. One is not right and the other is not wrong. Those words are meaningless in this context. One may be better than the other for certain specific purposes (which don't interest me), such as academic discussions or book clubs.

Any hatred I have of abridgments stems from the fact that they tends to be weaker on a sensual level. But the word "tends" is vital. I'd argue that it's vital even if there's not example of a work that's been improved (sensually) via abridgement. I'm sure this sounds perverse, but I mean it in all seriousness.

It's similar to how I feel about television: for years (since I grew up in "intellectual" circles), I heard people talk about how TV was horrible. I always thought that TV was fine -- it was the specific SHOWS on TV that were horrible. The distinction is important. It's not the medium itself; it's the use people tend to make of it. Most TV shows suck because the steps people follow when they make them are more about commerce than craftsmanship. But it doesn't have to be this way. And there are sparkling examples that prove it doesn't.

In the same vein, I don't feel that cutting intrinsically hurts or helps a work. Cutting CHANGES a work. (It could, potentially, change it for the better.) Cutting TENDS to damage a work, because the people who TEND to do the cutting are not doing it artfully.

From stuff you've said, I suspect you agree with me on that last point (but correct me if I'm wrong). But what's key to me is that cutting is ONLY bad because it's not done well. You add a bunch of extra stuff about authors and intents and communication and genuineness. That's where we diverge.
posted by grumblebee at 8:30 AM on May 11, 2007


if X thing is highly commended, and I don't like it, I don't assume in a knee-jerk manner "well this sucks and everyone's wrong." (Of course I tend to reserve that grace for 'classic' stuff, not contemporary.)

This makes it sound like there's a ranking engine in your head. You read a work, dislike it, but refuse to put it in the bad category because so many other people like it.

I have no argument with this, but I don't know why you do it. (Maybe you just do it because you do it.) When I read something and dislike it, I don't care whether or not many other people like it. I know that sounds horribly self-centered, but it's got nothing to do with self love. It has to do with the fact that I'm not ranking.

I do see how ranking can be useful at times. If you hate something that everyone else loves, you might choose to revisit the thing later. Maybe you'll like it the second time. If pretty much everyone hates it, it's probably not worth revisiting. But other than that, I can't see much utility.
posted by grumblebee at 8:35 AM on May 11, 2007


Many people who enjoy car chases and mustaches have other books that cater to them more effectively. And, and this is the crucial point, those other books are no more or less art or worthy than Moby Dick by any objective criteria.

As is screamingly clear, I agree with klangklangston 100%. But it was interesting reading his post, because he make the point so starkly. It gives me a little window into how I come across. It sounds like I'm claiming, "Moby Dick is no better than 'The Brady Bunc'" And, though that IS what I'm claiming, I don't blame people for thinking I'm lying. "Oh come on! You don't really think that!"

Let me be clear that I love "Moby Dick" and think "The Brady Bunch" is worthless crap.

Let me be clear that I think there's a huge cultural force, consisting of years of critical assessments, made by thousands of highly educated, well-read people, that dumbs "Moby Dick" a classic and "The Brady Bunch" garbage.

Let me be clear that I don't discount this force.

To me, it's useful in several ways:

1) It tells me that many people with similar backgrounds to mine have cherished "Moby Dick." So it seems likely that I will too. And if I read it and hate it, maybe it's worth a second read. It's a bit odd that so many like minds likes it while I didn't. Maybe I just wasn't in the mood or something.

2) Once a work gets dubbed a classic, it's likely to impact my culture in a variety of ways. At the very least, it will be read by many people and referred to by many people.

I'm not denying any of this. My argument is that...

1) The fact that I love one work and hate another -- and I do -- does not mean that the one I love is objectively better than the one I hate. It's just better to me. I can argue that it's better because of the superior prose, characterizations or whatever, but if those aspects aren't part of your ranking system, why should you agree? That doesn't lessen my feelings. I am emphatic about the fact that "Moby Dick" is great and "The Brady Bunch" sucks. To me.

And, to be honest, I feel like you should feel the same way. In the same sense that I feel like you should like the same people and foods that I like. I want to live in a world with people like me. But that still says nothing about objective aesthetics except that I WISH my aesthetics where objective.

2) The cannon is a popularity contest. It may be one in which the judges are smart people whose opinions, in general, I agree with. But it's still a popularity contest. When someone disagrees with the results of a popularity contest, we don't call them wrong. At most, we call them eccentric.

3) Ranking systems are most useful for activities SURROUNDING books. How do we know what books to teach in the classroom or discuss in our book clubs? It's useful to have ranks -- even arbitrary ones -- to help with that sort of stuff. But as someone who's not terribly interested in extra-book stuff, I don't much care about ranking.
posted by grumblebee at 9:02 AM on May 11, 2007


"And, to be honest, I feel like you should feel the same way. In the same sense that I feel like you should like the same people and foods that I like. I want to live in a world with people like me. But that still says nothing about objective aesthetics except that I WISH my aesthetics where objective."

Oh God yes. I had this sort of slo-mo epiphany while I was writing reviews and music criticism, helped in no small part by the popism movement that sort of took over in the last couple of years, and that epiphany was that a) people who like different things are OK, and one of the nice things about writing reviews is helping someone who would enjoy something you don't particularly like find something that they will enjoy, and b) that when I do really like something, the goal is to communicate what I like about it and persuade other people to give it a try (and hopefully, they'll enjoy the same things that I do about it).
On some level, it took the fun out of savaging crap, but it also let me get rid of a lot of rock canon based sloppy and lazy thinking and enjoy much, much more music. Once I got over the hesitation at the egoism of rooting all discussions in the equation of "What I enjoy=good," I had a lot more fun.

Which is why you'll see me arguing against the idea of a "guilty pleasure." I no longer feel the guilt.
posted by klangklangston at 10:17 AM on May 11, 2007


Kant obviously never spent time with teenagers. They'll talk about things being more real, or authentic, or harder to do, or any number of aesthetic systemic judgments by which they'll privilege low culture over high.

hm, I think what you mean there is that teenagers never spent any time with kant, as what you repeat afterward is pretty much exactly what I said, which is that there are other judgments one can make about a work other than its aesthetic value. Privileging something for reasons of enjoyment or familiarity is different than privileging it for reasons of artistic merit. All Kant asks us to do is determine our criteria for judgment.

and he gives a very specific explanation of precisely what the experience of beauty consists in. Now, he was describing the experience of natural beauty, not even painting, and certainly not literature, though many after him have attempted to expand his theory.

Anyway, this is probably not the place for an in-depth discussion of aesthetic theory, but the notion of objectivity here is not about simple agreement of all sensibilities. It's about specific capacities of the human mind like conceptualization and mental reproduction.

At the end of the day we cannot line up a hierarchy of art, but we do still recognize what is aesthetically valuable. Compare it to athleticism: we can argue about which sport or which athlete; we can compare greatest moments, and we can disagree over some of the fringes - but the broad notion of what is athletic and what simply isn't is agreed to. No one claims American Idol is great art, except insofar as they want to rile people up.

It's easy to take a kind of flat "it's all subjective" attitude, and but I now think there are much more interesting, nuanced ways of looking at the human response to beauty and art. There is something very interesting going on there - why do we even feel a response to begin with? - etc.
Anyway - we're not going to answer these questions here, but consider giving the questions some credibility to start with. The interesting thing is not that we disagree, but that we agree so much about something with almost no practical value.
posted by mdn at 10:38 AM on May 11, 2007


Once I got over the hesitation at the egoism of rooting all discussions in the equation of "What I enjoy=good," I had a lot more fun.

Of course, if there WAS an objective criteria, it would aid all sorts of activities. We could definitively say book X is good (or bad), and that anyone who thinks otherwise is wrong. (Though I'm still not sure what that would mean for that person, since he'd still be having the reaction he was having. What's a wrong reaction? An abnormal reaction? Is it okay to have an abnormal reaction and not care that it's abnormal? If so, why not?)

Objective criteria is REALLY useful to all sorts of activities. They are mostly activities don't interest me personally (such as academic discussion), but I can see why people who engage in those activities get upset when I say aesthetic judgment is subjective. It's sort of invalidates their field (at least the way they traditionally practice it).

But as I see it, they're basically saying, "We can't play our game unless we all agree that unicorns exist." My response to that is, "well, then I guess you can't play your game." (Of course, they can play it. But they can't convince me to play it.)

Cards completely on the table: I do think there are two was in which one can truthfully claim there are objective criteria -- in a limited sense. Both of these ways fascinate me (much more than this discussion does), but, alas, neither gets much play:

1) If we're willing to agree on certain ARBITRARY givens, we can judge works based on them. For instance, we can arbitrarily decide that good photography must be in focus. It's arbitrary because WHY should good photography be in focus? But arbitrary doesn't necessarily mean random or pointless. Maybe we are a group of people who just happen to dislike blurry photos. It makes sense then to band together, call that our aesthetic, and judge things by it.

I suspect that this is what really goes on in the minds of many people. They're just not explicit about it. In other words, they're operating principle is as follows: "I'm going to take generally-accepted, scholarly-based aesthetics as givens, and that will be my framework for making critical judgments. When I say a work is 'bad,' that's shorthand for 'it doesn't meet the framework's criteria'. This explains how I can, sometimes, like work that is bad. Good or bad doesn't necessarily have anything to do with what I like. It has to do with how well a work meets certain standards. Though hopefully those standards are, in general, in accord with my tastes. That was my assumption when I agreed to accept those standards as givens."

I see no problems or inconsistencies with is view. In fact, it's quite useful if your goal is to be part of a big conversation between like-minded people (e.g. partake in academia). The consensus of ground rules makes it possible for everyone to play together.

My problems with this approach are (a) the fact that its practitioners tend not to discuss their ground rules. They just assume they're all on the same page, and I think they're often mistaken; and (b) they tend not to admit that their rules are arbitrary.

To some extent, I think this is willful dishonesty. It's like burning skeptics at the stake so they won't damage the power of the church. (I sometimes felt like I was being burnt at a metaphorical stake when I questioned the underlying principles of classes in college.) But mostly I think it's less nefarious.

I suspect, for most people, either they just haven't thought it through fully (they learned some ground rules in school, they seemed to work, so they never "looked under the hood") or they feel uncomfortable with the idea that their rules are arbitrary, so they go into denial about it. Denial isn't always bad. If it helps you use an arbitrary tool, and if that tool is useful to you, it may be good.

2) Though the human mind is astoundingly plastic. Though you, and I and the next guy have very different tastes, we are -- in many ways -- alike.

There are choices an artist can make which are guaranteed to push certain buttons in certain ways in most people. THIS is a really interesting foundation for an objective aesthetic, and it shatters me that it's hardly studies. (And it COULD be studied. A few pioneering thinkers, like V.S. Ramachanran are poking around the edges of it).

Most findings in this field will probably be "basic" (when compared to the monumental claims of the arbitrary school of thought). They well be things like, when we see a yellow blob next to a red blog, we tend to react in a particular way. But this is a change to base aesthetics on sound, scientific principles. And the findings would be invaluable to artists (oh, I'd better not place yellow next to red!) and fascinating to art consumes (so THAT'S why I reacted that way!)

We'd still need to decide (or not -- we could play denial) about what to do about the "mutants", those people who didn't react in the expected ways.

One way to deal with that -- and with most such matters in most aesthetic systems -- is to say, "if an artist does y, MOST people will react by feeling y." This makes total sense to me. But for some reason, many people feel like all aesthetic judgments must be universal.
posted by grumblebee at 12:18 PM on May 11, 2007


grumblebee:

This makes it sound like there's a ranking engine in your head. You read a work, dislike it, but refuse to put it in the bad category because so many other people like it.

Huh? Oh, Sure! I do rank stuff in my head.

All I'm saying is that I understand that—when we slide down the greasepole of defending one's rankings vs. another's—that the ranking system in my head is not universal.

I don't really feel that the very notion of ranking art is alien to most people. I think it's innate (loaded term there... let's say, 'inherent'. If that's too troublesome, how's "common"?)

klangklangston:

Well, it's not the same quality for you. But fans of alliteration find more to savor in the Post than in the New Yorker, and I can assure you that writing snappy alliterative headlines is a skill.

Kinda undoing your own argument there aren't you? You're defining criteria that appeal to your hypothetical reader and then ranking by those criteria.

My understanding of subjective aesthetics is more along the lines of 'coming to different judgements on the same criteria', not just 'according different merit to the same criteria'.

The reason I'm not prepared to go all the way with 'artistic relativism' is that I think there is such a thing as an appeal to vulgar sentiment vs appeal to a more refined sentiment (this is why I brought up the Post.) I do think that tabloids are trashy.

I understand that trashiness is a sociological construction, but I guess I'll have to own up to having bought into the construction. There are behaviors I consider 'low', and behaviors I consider 'graceful'. Yelling at your wife in a restaurant? I consider that low. Somewhere in my mind that connects to gawking at celebrity gossip as low, and somewhere in my mind this conception of 'low culture' mixes with aesthetic appreciation.

It's not insular demographic snobbishness in the sense of 'opera is better than country music'; it's more along the lines of—ah, I think I have it—what sorts of values I associate with the sentiments that particular piece of opera or country music is invoking. Is it unthinking? Or is it thoughtful?

For example, I judge the new Avril Lavigne cheerleader-chants album to suck loads more than Let Go. I think it's literally worse! This is because I judge the values expounded within—both in terms of lyrical content and the musical production—to be worse.

The only extent to which I'm prepared to go over to your side is in accepting that my judgement of the same is not objectively superior to that of the 13-year-old squealing with frenzy at its songs. This is because, were I in that 13-year-old's shoes, I'd be every bit as resolved of her take on the album, and who's to say who's right? God knows, I like stuff that people hate. I like some of Britney Spears, while others seem to couple their identity with disdaining teen-pop.

(And—I won't get into the sociology of taste—but the reason that this is so contentious is that these choices always feed into identity. Marketers understand this; they've gotten identifying these gradients of people by what they're into down to an art.)

I sort-of articulated my take on this last year:
To start with, I’ll mention that I’m an open-minded sort of person when it comes to judgements of worth—any cog that fits into the machine of existence definitely serves some purpose, after all. When it comes to human creations, I can easily be pursuaded to see the expressive or stimulative value in things that I’ve classified as pedestrian, plain or even abject rubbish. There is beauty in any stirring of the soul, however primal the reaction; “your favourite band sucks” or “your favourite newspaper sucks” is not the sort of claim I’d defend in a contemplative mode.
I may be mixing up your opinion with grumblebee's; I suppose I'm still responding to grumblebee here with my 'personal ranking vs. objective ranking' dichotomy.

Subjectivism's all about shades of gray! It's just about letting individuals construct 'em!

Heh. I meant a more slippery set of shades of grey, that is to say, a mixture of subjective and objective understanding of aesthetic worth. Nevermind me though. Despite the richness of this discussion, we're not going to solve this issue of whether there are base artifacts compared to more refined artifacts. I just saw a message board where headline-writers were were having it out re: whether 'good' headlines are ones that tantalize people or not, and who gets to judge.
posted by Firas at 2:26 PM on May 11, 2007


Addendum:

My understanding of subjective aesthetics is more along the lines of 'coming to different judgements on the same criteria', not just 'according different merit to the same criteria'.

Strike that; I realize that if you got specific enough in your criteria (not just 'is this story evocative' vs. 'is it not' but 'here's what techniques succeed in evoking my responses') you could define subjectivism as differences in appeal of criteria.

I meant a more slippery set of shades of grey

I also meant shades of grey in a more basic way, ie. it's not just reading the full text vs. not reading the full text that one needs necessarily choose from. But that's been well-trodden earlier in this thread.
posted by Firas at 2:34 PM on May 11, 2007


"Strike that; I realize that if you got specific enough in your criteria (not just 'is this story evocative' vs. 'is it not' but 'here's what techniques succeed in evoking my responses') you could define subjectivism as differences in appeal of criteria."

Haha. You just made me erase my response that said about the same thing.

"They well be things like, when we see a yellow blob next to a red blog, we tend to react in a particular way. But this is a change to base aesthetics on sound, scientific principles. And the findings would be invaluable to artists (oh, I'd better not place yellow next to red!) and fascinating to art consumes (so THAT'S why I reacted that way!)"

It's my unsupported hypothesis that this will be largely culturally constructed. It's hard to imagine a culture with different concepts of color reacting the same way to color juxtaposition.
posted by klangklangston at 6:51 PM on May 11, 2007


klangklangston, I just used color as an example of the sort of basic thing I was talking about.

I agree that many aesthetic feelings must stem from cultural sources. But not all.

Forgetting aesthetics for a moment, we surely evolved to respond to certain stimuli in specific ways. To bring up a crude example, if something big is chasing us, we flee. This isn't cultural.

We get scared when, in a horror movie, a giant creature is chasing the hero (with whom we identify). I know monster-chasing-person is not generally considered an aesthetic, but it is.

If we think of "large-creature-chasing-you --> flee" as a "rule," there must be thousands of such rules. They'd have to do with innate reactions to common stimuli in the environment where people evolved.

These rules can be studied, abstracted and put into art. (It already happens, but mostly via accident and trial & error.)
posted by grumblebee at 8:31 AM on May 12, 2007


I will make (and ship--for free) my most delicious devil's food cupcakes with buttercream frosting and cute little sprinkles on top if anyone can explain to me the underlying precepts of Elizabeth Bishop's "Casabianca" in one concise paragraph and that is no lie.
I mean it.
This is my most devastatingly dearest poem since I was a lowly sophomore lo those 20 years ago but damned if I know what "Love's the burning boy" refers to.
Butter.Cream.Frosting.
posted by Dizzy at 2:39 PM on May 13, 2007


Dizzy, the poem is based on an earlier one by the same name. It was published in 1826 by Felicia Hemans. It commemorates an actual boy who stayed at his post (and died) on a burning ship. It starts like this:

The boy stood on the burning deck
Whence all but he had fled;
The flame that lit the battle's wreck
Shone round him o'er the dead.

He refused to leave (so legend has it) until his father (the commander of the ship) told him it was okay to step down. Alas, his father was dead. The poem ends...

With mast, and helm, and pennon fair,
That well had borne their part—
But the noblest thing which perished there
Was that young faithful heart.

This reminds me of Argos, Odysseus's faithful dog, who waited all those years for his master to return -- and then died.

One paragraph: Elizabeth Bishop's poem "Casabianca" is a homage to love. It's based on an earlier poem (of the same name) by Felicia Hemans. Both poems describe a historical event which occurred during The Battle of the Nile (1798) in which a young boy, sailing on his father's ship, stayed at his post as the ship burned. The boy refused to budge until he heard from his father (who, alas, had died) and, in the end, he burned to death. To many people, he is a symbol of duty. To Bishop, he's a symbol of love.

If you've followed this thread, you know I'm not a fan of mining poetry for symbolism. But there's little I wouldn't do for cupcakes.
posted by grumblebee at 3:33 PM on May 13, 2007 [1 favorite]


g-bee---
I'm going to your profile.
I'm sending you goodies.
I love you.
posted by Dizzy at 4:47 PM on May 13, 2007


g-bee---
Tried to e-mail you without success.
Contact me if you'd be so kind---
I'll be in NYC Wed/Thu?Fri...
Buy you lunch???
posted by Dizzy at 4:55 PM on May 13, 2007


Hmmm. We're both on gmail, so I don't know why there was a problem. In any case, I dropped you a line.

Bake a few extra cupcakes for Wikipedia. It helped flesh out my response.
posted by grumblebee at 5:14 PM on May 13, 2007


“and many people believe that they're helped in achieving clarity of communication by the advice of professionals.”

As opposed to the author? That’s the point - there’s an intermediary. And why settle for a - by your own terms subjective - source when that source is further distanced from the material - and the material itself contains omission?
Furthermore your assertion that “communicating that meaning requires two parties” fails - clearly in this case it’s three parties attemption to communicate - with the party in question making omissions in the original.

“those other books are no more or less art or worthy than Moby Dick by any objective criteria”

By that reasoning I could eliminate everything but “call me Ishmael” from the book and consider it equal to the work itself.
I’m not asserting an objective criteria - I’m arguing against a secondary subjective intermediary which distorts or omits the original and saying it is no more or less art or worthy.
It is - manifestly - less.

“Anything else is unsupportable presumption and harumphery.”

Fair enough.

“And, and this is the crucial point, those other books are no more or less art or worthy than Moby Dick by any objective criteria.”

And again, and this is the crucial point - that’s not what I’m arguing.

“The difference is in how much you like what you hear”

Again - calling a rose a shoe by omission or error is not equal to conscious reinterpretation. I grant that “all statements on aesthetics must be finally analyzed by me based on my tastes, and every other person does the same thing” - and I grant the “greatest hits” concept.
That does not eliminate the changing of the actual tune through omission or distortion.
My fake quote is an example of that.

We agree that someone can go and read the original if they like - my argument is that some works (not all) are more enjoyable in the original.
That someone would likely have a better experiance reading the original and selecting for themselves what they like or don’t and omitting it that way rather than having another subjective perspective select things for them.

“How so? And, further, how is it meaningful?”

Because - as my fake quote and my erroneous pronouncement on Spiderman 3 shows - there isn’t actual communication going on if I’m completely in error about the entire concept.
Why are madmen locked up if interpretation is completely subjective?

I’m not saying there aren’t degrees of being right about something or there isn’t or shouldn’t be wide latitude in subjective interpretation - but absolute distortion or omission is not, ultimately, communication. And has no meaning.

I’m not arguing “this is right” in terms of what is art etc. Merely pointing out that there is a “wrong.”
Perhaps because it’s fundimentally self-evident people miss it. Indeed, why would you contest my points at all if there is no “wrong.” Why bother to converse at all?

“Just to be fair, there is another possibility: you didn't express yourself clearly. I'm not saying that's true. I'm saying that before you assume I'm at fault, you should remember that "it takes two to tango.” - grumblebee

Oh, I don’t think there’s any question I don’t express myself clearly. I’m not in line for a pulitzer any time soon. Just one more error of assumption on my part (I assumed that as part of the equation).
I’m sorry that wasn’t more obviously implicit. And I (more explicitly) apologize for not being more clear.

“My argument is that you can't converse with an author because”

I’m not sure if this is addressed to me. I don’t believe I asserted that. But moot point either way, conversation is a dynamic not a static. And we agree on suspension of disbelief.

I disagree on knowing intent. I think you can.
There are shades of gray but ultimately there are degrees of meaning within which there are bounds.
And there are solid statements of fact that can be made about any work - e.g. - “Hamlet” is not an auto repair manual.
Within those bounds there are great latitudes of interpretation available though, I’d agree.

“You should choose the ones that make you happy.”

Indeed. And my point being having someone else choose for you could interfere with your making yourself happier. Or not.
But the risk inherent there is that it’s not you making the choice.

“But what's key to me is that cutting is ONLY bad because it's not done well. You add a bunch of extra stuff about authors and intents and communication and genuineness. That's where we diverge.”

Cutting could not improve a work (unless, as I’ve said, it’s done by the individual audiance member - skipping ahead, etc. ).
A reinterpretation that involves cutting could (which is what the author or another artist would do).
e.g. “All Along the Watchtower” by Hendrix is superior to Dylan’s original. But that’s my opinion. But it’s based on having experianced both works.
And my addition of those points (intent, communication, genuineness) is to support the point of choosing for yourself rather than through a third party.
If you don’t know how to make a choice for yourself - how do you know you have the thing that’s best - for you - to have?

I’m not arguing there’s an objective intent (I suppose I could, but I’m not taking that position) and you should be aligned with that to enjoy something.
Rather - that there is a difference between chosing for youself what you like and don’t and allowing someone else to (without getting a sense of the thing yourself, in the first place).
Now perhaps getting a sense of the thing is done through this - e.g. getting a book that’s cut up.
And that’s fine. But now, you’ve missed - at the least - the practice of figuring out for youself what resonates with you.
Maybe you’ll pick up an uncut version of “Moby Dick” and check out the parts that were cut out and say “yeah, that sucks, I’m glad I didn’t read that” or maybe you’ll like them and wish some stuff was included.
Or maybe you’ll never pick it up and you’ll never know.

Without experiancing things, knowing things, how do you know what the best things - the things that make you happy - are to have?
It’s better to try the broccoli and see if you like it or not rather than listening to everyone tell you that it sucks.

It’s a fine point, not a broad stroke.
posted by Smedleyman at 2:27 PM on May 14, 2007


"As opposed to the author? That’s the point - there’s an intermediary. And why settle for a - by your own terms subjective - source when that source is further distanced from the material - and the material itself contains omission?"

How many books do you read that don't have editors? I mean, just a rough number, percentage. For me, it's damn near zero. Why's that? Well, having gotten paid to write and gotten paid to edit, it often helps to have someone who is not you check over what you're communicating. Even, and especially, if they're another subjective data point.

For example, if you had an editor, they'd probably walk you through your arguments here and see if you really wanted to post all of them. Like: "Furthermore your assertion that “communicating that meaning requires two parties” fails - clearly in this case it’s three parties attemption to communicate - with the party in question making omissions in the original," where it should be clear that I was laying out the minimum necessary for communication, thus rendering irrelevant your pedantry about whether it's two or three (and sidestepping the easier rebuttal of noting that when an editor works with a writer, they're still essentially trying to communicate the author's vision more often than not— though there are some editorial situations, notably in journalism, where that's not true).
You'd also note that I said many people believe that they're helped by an editor, not that one is mandatory. But, and I realize this is question begging, if we can't establish objective criteria for aesthetics, and people still generally consider an editor a good idea, we must look elsewhere for justification for editors beyond their role as secret keepers of the literary flame. We must assume that they're being employed because they have specific knowledge, usually about conventions that have been decided upon by a society. Like, there's no real reason why Americans don't use an "ou" in flavor, but it's distracting for readers to have stylistic variance. Likewise, bibliographic rules are largely arbitrary, but their arbitrary nature is codified in order to aid the easy perusal of references. Editors generally have a broad knowledge of the "democratically" decided conventions of narrative and structure.
But I assume that you don't go out of your way to seek out the unedited versions of novels, or pour over manuscripts. Why not, if that's the pure experience?

I'll respond to the rest later, I think.
posted by klangklangston at 5:59 PM on May 14, 2007


Smedleyman, your argument is based on a fantasy (one believed by many people, but still a fantasy) that there's One True Text and that this text was created, start to finish, by the author (or that it has his blessing).

If we want to, we can say that there's One True Text. We can use various criteria to canonize a particular version. (And, in fact, we do.) But we can't easily tie that version to the author.

As klangklangston pointed out, most works are created via a collaboration between the author and his editor. Have you ever written a book that was published, Smedleyman? If you have, you know that, often, the editor does much more than just tweak here and there. Raymond Carver's editor claims he's responsible for creating the famed "Carver" style -- that Carver was much more verbose, but that via editing, his prose was turned into lean, Hemmingwayesque minimalism. Maybe this is true; maybe it's not. But it if happens to be false in this case, it's true in many other cases -- to greater and lesser degrees.

And it's not true that all authors happily accept their editors's changes. Many authors hate them, but it's usually the editor who wins. So the editor's version gets published an canonized.

Then people read under the illusion that they're communing with Raymond Carver. In fact, if they're communicating with anyone, they're communicating with Carver's editor, who has created an adaptation of Carver's work. Or maybe they're communicating with a Carver/Editor hybrid.

And a different editor would have made different choices. Why is adaptation A more true than adaptation B?

One thing nearly all editor's do to nearly all manuscripts is to cut them. You can say that professional editors make "artistic" cuts whereas abridgers make commerce-based cuts. In fact, almost all editors make commercial-based cuts.

George R. R. Martin is a fantasy writer. His editor forced him to completely re-think a book's structure because the original manuscript was too many pages to fit in a paperback. Martin found a way to do this that he was happy with -- or at least that's what he claimed. But he wouldn't have done this if it hadn't been for commercial reasons.

Authors want their works to sell, and they want to have good relationships with publishers, so you often won't know that privately, an author is unhappy about the edit. But what if you did know? What if the author was a friend and he told you that he was unhappy? But what if you read both versions and liked the edited one better? Which is the true version?

Books are also edited by the author's family (e.g. Anne Frank) or by the author himself, if he feels embarrassed about something he was planning to say. Sometimes authors later admit that they wish their book had been edited.

If you abstract literature away from a single book, you get many more levels of editing. Literature is "edited" by scholars, critics and popular taste. There are great books that you don't get to read because they never got canonized. There are horrible books that have been canonized. That's a subjective statement, of course. But some of those books might be made better via editing. If so, I'd say the edited version is more "true" in the sense that it's more true to the guts of the story -- or more true to an good aesthetic experience. I wouldn't really say that, though, because I wouldn't use the word "true" when talking about aesthetics.

I disagree on knowing intent. I think you can.

No you can't. Unless you have psychic powers. (Or unless you're using the word "intent" in a strange way.)

If I intend to do something, that intention is only in my mind.

You can ask my about my intentions, and I can say, "they are to do X, Y and Z" but I may be lying or mistaken. I can't always read myself so well.

What if you asked Shakespeare what he intended when he wrote Hamlet and he said, "I intended to make some money and make the audience cry."? Then let's say you read a critical assessment of Hamlet that found much "deeper" significance in it. What then? Does the critic know Shakespeare's intentions better than Shakespeare? (Maybe so, but how could we ever know without being about to read Shakespeare's mind?)

Most of the time, we don't even have an author telling us his intentions. We just have the work itself. Your claim, I assume, is that you can mine the intentions from the text. That's magical thinking.

You may be right, but how on Earth can you prove it? To prove it, you'd have to compare your claimed intentions with the actual ones in the author's brain, and you can't do it, because you can't read minds.

You can say, "to hell with proof." That's your right. You can engage in magical thinking if you want, but it's silly to bring such thinking up in argument. If you do, the argument turns into "no you can't. yes I can." We'll have to just agree to disagree.

I'm not claiming that there's no connection between the author's frame-of-mind while he was writing (not quite the same thing as intent) and what's on the page. Of course there is. His frame-of-mind cause him to make certain choices. Where magical thinking comes in is a leap from that to "and by looking at his words, I can re-create his frame-of-mind and know what it is."

One can form hypothesis about intent -- even good one's. One can read a book and say, "If I wrote something like this -- assuming my upbringing and psychological makeup was similar to the author's -- my intent would be X, so I'm assuming that his intent was X, too." That's a hypothesis about intent. It's unprovable (even if it's satisfying to you), and it's not the same as actually KNOWING intent.

Sure, I get that feeling of, "I KNOW what he was thinking when he wrote that!" It's a FEELING. It's a profound feeling, and I may get something from it. But it's a feeling. It's not an actual connection to the author's mind. You might have your own profound feeling about the same work, and yours might be different from mine. Neither of us can prove we're closer to knowing the author's intent.

(I go beyond all this and claim that if you really could read the author's mind and tell me his intent, I wouldn't care. It's not why I read.)
posted by grumblebee at 10:32 AM on May 15, 2007


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