Twitter Does the Classics
By Earnest Prankheimer
Readers Digest Condensed Books have been around since I was a kid, for those who want to read classic literature, but don’t want to, you know, have to read all those words. I used to joke that they were going to do the Bible, but then they did! They must not have read Revelation, 22:19: And if any man shall take away from the words of the book of this prophecy, God shall take away his part out of the book of life . . . Oh well, they’re all going to Hell. There are books on tape and Large Print, for those with impaired sight or vision, and they are necessarily abridged. After all, Grandma can’t pick up a hundred pounds of Dickens’ Bleak House, can she? When I was a kid there was a great series of comic books, “Classics Illustrated,” and I gave more than one book report from them, cheating myself in the process.
In college were the ubiquitous yellow and black Cliffs Notes, valuable study aids providing the depth of analysis required to grasp complex themes. Also great for defrauding the system. God forbid that someone should actually read Moby Dick, the whole book, think about what they’re reading, grasp subtexts and subtle nuances, all without outside help. That was the idea, though, to teach critical thinking. What a quaint notion that seems these days. Critical thinking — why, the very idea! Condensation is what we need, boil it down to the basics. There was another alternative method about the same time, speed reading. Evelyn Wood Reading Dynamics would teach you to read a hefty tome with the velocity of a top fuel dragster. Never mind that some author labored for hours whether or not to put that comma there, the Evelyn Wood reader screamed around the corner at 180 wpm, oblivious to petty nuisances like punctuation.
While I was in college, there was a joke going around. There was this guy who was getting ready to take a final. He condensed all his notes down to a single page, then down to one paragraph, then down to a single sentence, and finally to one word. When he went to take the final, he forgot the word.
As our pace of living quickened from speed-walking to a full-out sprint, emails and text messaging ushered in new abbreviations (an awfully long word for its meaning), like LOL — laughing out loud, or IMHO — in my humble opinion.. Now Twitter is the mania of choice for communications. That’s gr8, I suppose, if tweeting and following others’ tweets consumes one’s available time. However, there is a new fad using the medium, twitterature. I recently heard of it, but it’s been around for about four years (I don’t do the Twitter). As I understand it, the limit is 140 characters, including punctuation and spacing. Coincidentally, that’s about the attention span of the average American. Poetry, even novels are being tweeted back and forth, and people are reinterpreting the classics, too. I read a version of Macbeth by someone called Mo Mo, and it wasn’t bad. But at the bottom it said “click for full text” and it ran on for several tweets. That’s cheating, I thought. 140 should be the limit, shouldn’t it?
I became intrigued by the idea, whether it was possible to distill a great novel down to 140 characters. If you cut down a tree and whittle it into a toothpick, how many people would be able to identify the type of tree it had been? Who cares about character development and complex moral ambiguities? There’s no time for that! Still, I couldn’t let it go, and decided to go right to my favorite literary work, Hamlet. This is what I came up with, minus the quotation marks, which are used to offset the text — “OMG dad? Uncle did it! Antic disposition, 2B, etc. Nunnery! Play. Polonius? 4 worms. 2 England! H2Ophelia, Yorick, a hit! Poison, all die.”
That came in at 138, and I think it’s pretty good, but unless you already know the story, it doesn’t give you much information. Maybe the idea is more like hurry up before you get there, as my dad used to say. No, that can’t be it, either. It must be a competition of some kind, a game the hipster literati play with each other. I’ll bet there are some, though, who ironically use one of the cheats mentioned above to abet their own reductionism. I think I’ll stay with what I’ve read. Here’s Ernest Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea — “Boy brings paper daily, baseball scores. Fishing, hook a big one, days @ C. Miss the boy, scores. Just U & me now, fish. Damned sharks!” That one is 135, and very tidy, too.
As for the Bible (heedless of Revelation), I think I should be allowed 140 for each of the testaments, since they are in fact two separate books. Here, then, is the Old Testament — “Light! Man woman snake sin guilt wrath. Let my people go, thou shalt not x10, begat abomination sacrifice, blood & murder, rinse & repeat.” And the New Testament — “3 wise men & a baby, lepers, demons, moneylenders, give it away & follow me, Judas, 30 pcs Ag, cross. Risen! Gospels, hey what R 7 vials 4?” Those are 138 and 139, “respect”-ively.
Since we’re carving up the classics, why should film escape the wood chipper? The 1931 original “Frankenstein” with Boris Karloff — “Dead flesh bad brain zap! It’s alive! Escape! Run little girl! Rampage thru countryside, angry peasants, torches & pitchforks, windmill.” The novel is literally another story, and more difficult. One more film, though, Stanley Kubrick’s gorgeously inscrutable “2001: A Space Odyssey” — “Ape monolith club space station beep from moon, 2 Jupiter! Hal bent on mischief. Stop, Dave. Zoom! Dave @ various ages. Confused? Starchild.”
Well, wasn’t that fun. But since we’re pushing envelopes, why not push both ways? Why not take reductionism to its logical absurdity? I can condense Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath, film and book, to eleven — “Okies? LOL!” What does that prove? Nothing, it’s just a pleasant diversion. Oh, what the heck, one more for the road, the greatest film ever made, in my opinion, “Lawrence of Arabia.” And this one actually tells the whole story, I think: “T.E. Lawrence aka “Dances With Arabs,” WWI. Help them fight Turks, German allies, while France & England scheme to steal their resources.” I’ll let someone else tackle War and Peace or “The Piano.”
“I fear the day that technology will surpass our human interaction. The world will have a generation of idiots.” — Albert Einstein