Trimming fat of description from classic literature

January 03, 2008|By McClatchy-Tribune

The last commandment in Elmore Leonard's 10 Rules of Writing declares that an author should "try to leave out the part that readers tend to skip."

The people at Phoenix Press think a number of classic authors were negligent in observing this rule. Anna Karenina, for instance, weighs in at a whopping 800-plus pages. Who can possibly hope to read that and still have time to watch Dancing with the Stars?

"The great classics contain passionate romance, thrilling adventure, interesting characters, and unforgettable scenes and situations," Phoenix generously acknowledges. "But finding the time to read them ... can be a problem."

Its solution? Compact Editions: "Now," Phoenix tells us, "these masterpieces have been sensitively and intelligently condensed, retaining both the author's own words and all the drama of the original!"

The first six Compact Editions -- Melville's Moby-Dick, Dickens' David Copperfield, Thackeray's Vanity Fair, Tolstoy's Anna, George Eliot's The Mill on the Floss, and Gaskell's Wives and Daughters -- arrived in bookstores in September.

The Phoenix Press edition of Anna Karenina is a mere 385 pages because, as it tells you right there on the cover, it's Anna Karenina in half the time. Phoenix's Moby-Dick in half the time comes in at just 313 pages (compared with 720 for the Penguin Classics edition).

There is a note, "About this Compact Edition," appended to each. The one for Moby-Dick tells us that it "retains the main narrative line" -- that would be the whale hunt -- and even the "supporting characters ... feature strongly."

What's missing? "Lengthy descriptions of whaling history and of whales, some philosophical observations, a number of other digressions and reflections" -- in other words, the pith and marrow that are precisely what makes Melville's idiosyncratic masterwork the epic that it is.

As for Anna Karenina, in the Compact Edition "the central focus is on the ill-starred love affair of Anna and Vronsky, the marriage of Dolly and Stiva, and the coming together of Kitty and Levin." So "some descriptions of society life in Moscow and St. Petersburg" have been excised, and "overlong dialogue is reduced ... some minor characters are either eliminated or have a diminished emphasis."

Oh, and "philosophical and political sections are outlined ... and detailed descriptions, from characters' reactions to particular events, are cut back."

What this comes down to in practice is that, of the 13 paragraphs in Chapter 1 of Moby-Dick, six are missing and three others have been trimmed. On the other hand, Chapter 36, "The Quarter-Deck" -- a key chapter to be sure, in which Ahab descants to Starbuck upon his belief that "all visible objects ... are but as pasteboard masks" and that "some unknown but still reasoning thing puts forth the mouldings of its features from behind the unreasoning mask," and "that inscrutable thing is chiefly what I hate" -- is left mostly intact.

Of course, in this edition, "The Quarter-Deck" is Chapter 29, not Chapter 36, because seven other chapters have been left out altogether, among them "Cetology" -- everybody's choice for omission -- but also "The Pulpit" and "The Sermon," which contain some of Melville's most splendid prose. Apparently, Father Mapple's sermon on Jonah and the whale doesn't have as much bearing on the "main narrative line" as we thought.

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