Monday, May 23, 2005

The problem with literature is language

Barnes and Noble's Sterling Publishing has finally solved the problem of how to extract the meaning in books without all of those pesky words getting in the way. Their new "classic starts" series (which, I'm sorry, sounds way too much like a frozen foods brand to me) presents classic children's books the way we want them: for dummies. After School Snack has the WSJ extract that explains the books "appeal to both those who struggle to read and to avid younger students whose reading skills aren't quite strong enough to let them master The Adventures of Tom Sawyer in its original. The books, which have been retold using simpler words, have been surprisingly hot sellers..." After poking around on Sterling's site, I also discovered the Young Readers Shakespeare Series which similarly vivisects the Bard "skillfully blending Shakespeare's own lines with simple, modern language."

The WSJ story quotes a visiting scholar at Harvard's School of Ed, who explains, "kids spend so much time trying to decipher the words that the meaning of the story eludes them."

WTF??? Can you hear the sound of my head exploding? I am trying to understand this distinction between words and meaning. Telling a story is not like juicing an orange. Let's just get rid of all of that pesky pulp and rind and get right to the meaning. To make matters worse, the Classic Starts titles are all children's books to begin with. We're not talking here about simplifying Gravity's Rainbow. No, this is a list with tough-to-tackle titles such as The Secret Garden and Little Women.

I'm not trying to be a total jerk here. I understand the draw of stories for their own sake. Shit, if I watch the first fifteen minutes of a Lifetime movie, I am incapable of leaving the television until the damn thing is done. I am a slave to narrative. But there are plenty of good stories that are already told in tiny sentences with one- and two-syllable words to publish. Why go marauding the classics?

Sterling's tag line: "The stories are abridged; the quality is complete. Classic Starts treats the world's beloved tales (and children) with the respect they deserve--all at an incomparable price." With respect like that, who needs abuse?

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