Dispatches | July 16, 2007

I’m not a fast reader. I’ve improved with experience and age, but it usually takes me awhile to get through any hefty tome. Still, a good book always seems worth my time, so this has never troubled me—after all, reading’s not the most challenging activity in the world.

Or so I thought. Recent news shows the publishing world is throwing a bone to the less-than-dedicated readers of the world.

British publisher Orion Books recently issued its first set of scaled-down classics, with dozens more so-called “Compact Editions” planned for the future. The publisher slashed thirty to forty percent of each classic work of literature, axing whole chapters at times. The first novels to face the chopping block included Anna Karenina, Vanity Fair, David Copperfield, The Mill on the Floss, Moby Dick and Wives and Daughters.

The publisher, calling their collection great reads “in half the time,” explained its actions as benevolent—people could read more classics and expand their cultural knowledge this way, the publisher emphasized. It claimed that most people thought of “classics” as long, slow, and boring. While that may be true for the average reader, this certainly is not a call to shred old masterworks.

Literature should challenge its readers, and this butchery degrades it for convenience. Instant gratification isn’t everything; cutting more than a third of Tolstoy will hurt the original writing and won’t create a comparable read. The literary experience calls for build-up and foreshadowing on the part of the writer, which, if the reader is patient, can lead to a disarming catharsis. Sometimes this happens to take a thousand pages. If those thousands pages are integral to the author’s masterpiece, then I’ll happily tough that out.

I liked reading the Great Illustrated Classics series as a kid, but this strategy, marketed to adult readers, just promotes laziness. The publisher seems to think a quick read matters more than quality prose. Sparknotes would probably serve a reader better than these watered-down versions.

Convenience permeates everything these days, given the Internet, text messaging, and Ipods, and this convenience has begun to extend to language itself. The BBC recently published an article about the Simplified Spelling Society . The group works to standardize the English language, making spelling more phonetic and flexible. Fears of instant-message jargon leap to mind for me (spellings of “I luv u” and “good nite”). I’ll grant you that English is a messy language, but precision can be positive, and I know I would be driven insane by a world where “ennywun” spelled so loosely. Please, folks, let’s just try to use the language we’ve all agreed on.

Of course, these events are mere trends of the moment and unlikely to make any dent in the literary world. Anyone with an inclination to seriously read Tolstoy or Dickens in the first place will likely opt for the real deal, and a small-time organization that boycotts spelling bees is not going to overturn the power of Funk and Wagnalls (or Strunk and White, for that matter).

For those who don’t relish the hundreds of pages of War and Peace, though, rest assured. Orion Books promises another set of compact classics in September: Bleak House, Middlemarch, Jane Eyre, The Count of Monte Cristo, North and South and The Portrait of a Lady. Personally, I think I’m going to keep plodding through the big literary works page by page—reading all the pages, not just 60 percent—and feel satisfied with that.