The writer I used to be would be appalled by the writer I have become.
It started at Christmas.
I decided our 8-year-old daughter was ready for a version of A Christmas Carol not dumbed down by Disney.
And why not? Christmas Carol is only 28,000 words. Over two or three nights, surely she could listen to Dickens' holiday classic.
"This is boring," she said, after just five minutes.
She was right.
Books change over time, and over 170 years, A Christmas Carol has changed more than most. The story is a slow starter. The language is clotted. There's a lot of extraneous description.
So this former English major hacked 15,000 words out of Charles Dickens' immortal novel.
Worse: I've compounded the felony.
I engaged Paige Peterson, a non-classic illustrator, to spice up my all-protein version.
Then I published A Christmas Carol as an e-book available in all popular formats. And I am now encouraging parents to consider my e-book as their go-to edition of Christmas Carol. [To buy my "gently abridged" e-book of "A Christmas Carol" for your Kindle, iPad, iMac or Nook, click here.]
Actually, I don't consider myself a butcher. And I don't think I maimed A Christmas Carol. My goal wasn't to rewrite Dickens, just to update the archaic language, trim the dialogue, cut the extraneous characters and reduce the book to its essence, which is the story.
Here are 395 words from the Dickens text:
Meanwhile the fog and darkness thickened so, that people ran about with flaring links, proffering their services to go before horses in carriages, and conduct them on their way. The ancient tower of a church, whose gruff old bell was always peeping slyly down at Scrooge out of a Gothic window in the wall, became invisible, and struck the hours and quarters in the clouds, with tremulous vibrations afterwards as if its teeth were chattering in its frozen head up there. The cold became intense. In the main street at the corner of the court, some laborers were repairing the gas-pipes, and had lighted a great fire in a brazier, round which a party of ragged men and boys were gathered: warming their hands and winking their eyes before the blaze in rapture. The water-plug being left in solitude, its overflowing sullenly congealed, and turned to misanthropic ice. The brightness of the shops where holly sprigs and berries crackled in the lamp heat of the windows, made pale faces ruddy as they passed. Poulterers' and grocers' trades became a splendid joke; a glorious pageant, with which it was next to impossible to believe that such dull principles as bargain and sale had anything to do. The Lord Mayor, in the stronghold of the mighty Mansion House, gave orders to his fifty cooks and butlers to keep Christmas as a Lord Mayor's household should; and even the little tailor, whom he had fined five shillings on the previous Monday for being drunk and bloodthirsty in the streets, stirred up to-morrow's pudding in his garret, while his lean wife and the baby sallied out to buy the beef. Foggier yet, and colder! Piercing, searching, biting cold. If the good Saint Dunstan had but nipped the Evil Spirit's nose with a touch of such weather as that, instead of using his familiar weapons, then indeed he would have roared to lusty purpose. The owner of one scant young nose, gnawed and mumbled by the hungry cold as bones are gnawed by dogs, stooped down at Scrooge's keyhole to regale him with a Christmas carol: but at the first sound of -- "God bless you, merry gentleman! May nothing you dismay!" Scrooge seized the ruler with such energy of action, that the singer fled in terror, leaving the keyhole to the fog and even more congenial frost.
What happened there? Beats me.
Here's my revision of that passage -- in 107 words:
Meanwhile the fog and darkness thickened. The ancient tower of a church became invisible; it struck the hours and quarters in the clouds. The cold became intense. In the main street, the brightness of the shops made pale faces glow as they passed. Butcher shops became a splendid joke: a glorious pageant of pheasant and duck and goose, so it was next to impossible to believe that anyone anywhere had to think about such dull realities as bargains and sales. And then it turned foggier yet, and colder. It was piercing, searching, brutally cold when Scrooge rose from his desk to close the office for the day.
I like to think "mine" reads better.
The difference: In 1843, when Dickens wrote A Christmas Carol, photography was an infant, movies were beyond a dream. It was Dickens' task to create pictures in words so his readers could re-create them in their minds. That's no longer necessary. We've all seen pictures of London -- even the London of the mid-nineteenth century.
And there's another factor: Attention spans have changed.
In 1883, Vincent Van Gogh wrote, "I have re-read Christmas Carol almost every year since I was a boy -- and it always seems news." How I wish we still had that much continuity in our lives. That much time to read, to dream. But we don't. We are bombarded by more information in a single day than Von Gogh had to deal with in the 37 years of his life. It's changed us. And we can't undo the change even if we flee to the proverbial desert island.
So thick, word-drenched "classics" need to be shorter for today's readers --- especially today's kids.
Don't wanna go there? I understand that view. But those who feel that way need to know that "classics" will, in our lifetime, go extinct.
I am not the only one to feel the need for speed.
Here's Cynthia Crossen, book columnist for the Wall Street Journal: As much as I love Trollope, Dickens and Eliot, they do try my patience.
Cressida Cowell, author of How To Train Your Dragon goes further:
Attention spans are changing. It's very noticeable. I am very aware that the kind of books I read in my childhood kids now won't be able to read. I was reading Kipling and PG Wodehouse and Shakespeare at the age of 11. The kind of description and detail I read I would not put in my books.
I don't know how much you can fight that because you want children to read. So I pack in excitement and plot and illustrations and have a cliffhanger every chapter. Charles Dickens was doing cliffhangers way back when. But even with all the excitement you have to make children care about the characters.
These writers -- and reactions from early readers -- have convinced me I should do more of these. I think I'll call the series "Modern Classics." I dare to hope that readers, young and old, build a virtual 5-foot shelf of them.
All because a third-grader couldn't sit still for A Christmas Carol.