What to Talk About at Boring Parties

The other night I was thinking about an old stack books, because that’s where my mind goes at random intervals. These books were bought at some used book sale several years ago. They all have cloth bindings and are old text books- more suited for decor than for interesting reading. There was one exception. I knew a copy of Victor Hugo’s Les Miserables was amongst the stack. Again, I’m not sure what prompted this thought and then further prompted me to dig LM out. But I did.

I found Les Mis as it so commonly is shortened to and flipped it open. I had never read this before and didn’t even know the story line (don’t judge) because I haven’t seen the movies or operas based upon it either. I do know the character Jean Valijean, but honestly that and the fact that Hugo is the author is as far as my knowledge goes. I read the first few pages and thought, hmm, this is decent and doesn’t feel tedious ( in full disclosure, I find many ‘older’ classic-types to feel tedious due to the syntax/writing style). I can’t say that my intentions were to stop everything and read this book, but it definitely was going to be added to the outrageous stack already living and collecting dust on my nightstand.

After reading those first pages I flipped to the front and read the short blurb about Hugo. I find those fascinating, especially when a book was written in the 1800s. What I don’t usually find fascinating and skip over is the forward section. Forwards are usually long-winded, often time present spoilers (which is definitely not needed in a book that may have next to no twists or surprises!), and in my opinion, simply something for a Ph.D student or subsequent professor to brag about at boring parties. Thanks, but no thanks, just pass me the Danielle Steel and no one gets hurt. Anyway. This book had a section called The Publisher’s Note and that’s where it got interesting.

The first paragraph reads, “Many authors and editors extol as a virtue the ability to skip as a means of extending one’s reading habits.” The widely read and popular author W. Somerset Maugham is listed as an “outstanding advocate” of skipping and he is actually called the “dean of the contemporary literary world” in this note.

Summarizing the publisher’s note (you can read it in its entirety above) states that more of the greatest novels would be more widely read if they were not too long or too slow in tempo. The note does go on to say that the modern reader is often “deprived of savoring the richness of the classics because of the lack of time.” However right after this statement it is said that often many writers of the classics were…wait for it: paid. by. the. word. Due to this pay structure, this “sometimes made them more verbose than they might otherwise have been.” Hmm, ya think? Sometimes? Shit-fire, people! This was the 1800s, if you could add thousands of words for extra dough you could buy so many…candles? Hay for your horse? Sorry, I’m being a jerk.

It goes on to say that editors have “deleted large blocks of unnecessary narrations, description, and unimportant historical data, the story line…[stays] intact.” So literary purists will abhor the practice of skipping I’m sure, and is skipping just another name for abridged? Before reading this note the idea of an abridged novel bothered me. The small section of my brain that could maybe be called a literary purist would shout or maybe say nicely from the rooftops, “Just give me the whole darn novel!” However, in light of hearing about these authors being paid by the word, my opinion has changed.

I love beautiful writing as much as the next reader, what I don’t like is ridiculousness, more specifically, ridiculousness for profit. Whether it’s from a classic or a contemporary novel does not matter, if one, two or more hundred pages can be cut and the story line isn’t affected or cheapened, isn’t that a no-brainer? No offense Moby Dick, but a million pages about ropes is a bit much. To be fair, I’m not just here to pick on classics (there just happens to be a lot of examples, thanks, Don Quixote). A more contemporary example of cutting to more to the chase would be Donna Tartt. Disclaimer: I love and have read all three of her books. The Goldfinch is my favorite by far and I m excited to see the upcoming movie. That being said, her novels could definitely benefit from a delete key or ten.

Bookworms, I am a lover of large books, but not large books that feel tedious or simply (as some people feel, but won’t admit) give bragging rights at boring parties. Life is too short.

“I intend to put up with nothing that I can put down.”

– Edgar Allan Poe

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