My wife got me a pile of old books the other day. She often does this, because she knows I go through them rapidly and my tastes are eclectic to put it kindly. This means there are hits and misses and it's hard to predict which is which, but she's brought me some beauties over the years.
This is not one of them:
Notice anything odd there? She picked it up because it looked like an anthology of classics, which I'd bet is what it was supposed to look like . . . but notice how many classics. One hundred one? How many pages do you think are in this book?
Hmmm . . . . I think I'm beginning to
see how they managed it. Ten pages for Tom Jones . . . nine pages for Ivanhoe . . . and only eight pages for Anna Karenina. Now, I haven't read Tom Jones or Ivanhoe (yes, a blogger is allowed to admit that there is a classic book he has not read) but I really enjoyed Anna Karenina. What I'm having a hard time envisioning is how anyone could pretend to understand it when it's been cut down to eight pages in length. Tolstoy couldn't have written an eight-page description of poor Anna brushing her teeth without giving himself a stroke. How is this supposed to work?
I recently re-read Fahrenheit 451. I doubt many of my readers have not also read this work, but the quick version is this: in a dystopian future, Guy Montag is a fireman who is paid to burn books instead of putting out fires. People live mad, frantic, unthinking lives where nothing matters except fast, loud, mindless fun. But Montag can feel something missing . . .
When I was a child, I thought it was a good story with the fatal flaw that the firemen were a heavy-handed contrivance; they made the story hard to believe, because they were so unnecessary. What were they there for? Reading it now, I realize that's the whole point. As Captain Beatty says, the firemen really aren't necessary; they just make big fires in the night as entertainment for the people who need that "real world" edge to their drama. The censorship of any real ideas that might put people off their appetite for bread and circuses is accomplished by the people themselves, who choose to ignore those ideas so the fun can continue. The ideas they ignore so studiously could be expressed on their giant televisions or their tiny seashell radio earbuds (the technological aspects seem a lot more prescient today than the last time I read this, too, as I mow the law with an Ipod and my neighbors are carting out the box from their new 194" TV.) The whole thing started, Beatty said, with dumbing down the literature, the drama, the cinema and the news to a sort of bland pudding.
This book is an example of the bland pudding . . . and the weirdest thing is Armstrong's introduction, where he holds forth for several pages about the importance of being able to discuss Tom Jones and Moby Dick at cocktail parties. He's careful to note that the "false expertise" of the man who has only skimmed such works is useless . . . but his book is different, because it will keep you from wasting your time reading a bunch of junk you think you like. These are the novels that the collective wisdom of the great critics has decreed that you will enjoy . . . these are the novels that the collective wisdom of the great critics has decreed that you must be able to quote or at least nod knowingly about in order to get that middle-management slot at the insurance company. In short, if you're the sort of insufferable boor who has no chance of ever understanding why people enjoy any of these stories, you'll love this book.