February 2011

When we think reductions of content, it’s interesting to think about a time when the amount of information or the access to it was already limited.

I recall hearing that one way to understand the world in which John Milton (1608-1674) lived was that he had, or at least the ability to have read every book. That’s every friggin’ book available. It’s probably apocryphal, but gives us insight to time when book were expensive and rare and access was largely limited to Latin, Greek, English, and the European languages and the total number of books available to someone in a single place could fit one room. But, it’s also a time when an uneducated person’s entire lifetime’s access to information might be the equivalent to our daily newspaper.

Right now, just in English, there are 7.5 million titles available, with another 12 million international books in print. With so much information overload, many folks ether need to find what they need faster or have even that information reduced in sized.

For those of us who went to university before google, we recall the cornerstone of research, or at least the main idea in that freshman course on how to use the library was the periodical index, a thumbnail sketch of an article in a magazine or journal. Like an extremely awkward search engine, you’d have to make a guess about the year the information might have existed and then take your chances. If you got a “hit” you’d have to hope that the article might actually exist in your library. I recall as an undergraduate, looking for early review of James’s Joyce’s Ulysses. It took at least an hour for me to find a review. Today, a search for “James Joyce Ulysses review” gave me “About 292,000 results” in 0.16 seconds. The first item was the New York Times review from 1922 I had found using the index, with the great quote:

“Not ten men or women out of a hundred can read “Ulysses” through, and of the ten who succeed in doing so, five of them will do it as a tour de force. I am probably the only person, aside from the author, that has ever read it twice from beginning to end.”

A less severe reduction is the journal abstract. It’s sometimes called a summary. The idea is to give you the gist of the article and can function along with a bit of the opening prose as a tease when the journal is in electronic form and its articles are for sale.

Think you’ve never been exposed to an abstract? Consider these three forms from (ahem) the lower regions of academe: the précis, the classic comic book, and the Cliff Note.

In the American Lit. course in which we spent our junior year in High School, we were asked to write a précis of each of the (mostly short) samplings of Great American Literature that we had read. These (précis) were to be collated and handed in for the teacher’s perusal at the end of the term. One of my classmates who (like probably everybody else) waited until the night before the collation was due to take pen (or typewriter) in hand. His précis for Poe’s oeuvre, rolled into a single entry, was “Boo!” As I recall, the long-suffering teacher was not amused. On the other hand, teachers have their revenge: Juniors in High School who had begun Latin as freshmen and stuck with it got to read what they thought was the Aeneid, which it was except for the hot bits concerning the activities of Aeneus and Dido in the cave, to which only those who browsed the unexpurgated trot or happened to revisit the story later in life were privy.

The classic comic, more precisely, “Classics Illustrated”, existed from 1941 to 1971, and provided a plot summary, in comic form. I first came in contact with “Classics Illustrated” (I was more of a Sgt Rock kind of guy) with Silas Marner, which my brother read instead of 212 pages George Eliot’s deathless prose. In his defense, it has shown up in several “Most boring books ever written” lists, perhaps because so many had been force to read it. In the comic version, all the action and conflict had been distilled down to what your young impressionable author seemed like a ripping yarn. “Classics Illustrated” was dreamed up as more of an educational project, than a short cut or a cheat, with quick author profiles and other educational tidbits.

“Just get the Cliff Notes!”

A fixture in the back of every college bookstore, what is actually called “Cliff’s Notes”, (and their lesser-known cousins, Monarch Notes and Spark Notes), are the saviors to many a harried student. Like Classics Illustrated, they provided a breezy overview of the book, but also provided themes, possible test questions and potential paper topics. Each began with a preface sternly warning the student that reading this reduction was no substitute to the rich experience of actually reading the actual book. They were however, nicely done, hitting the high points, and one might seriously believe that someone out there used these as a study aid in a book they had, in fact, read (all the way through).

The desire to at least appear that you were awake in class has extended to our post university life. The now out-of-print, How to Become Ridiculously Well-read in One Evening springs to mind as one of many semi-humorous attempts to provide a quick survey to thousands of years of eternal works. Keeping with the times, the latest attempt is the 2009 entry Twitterature: The World’s Greatest Books in Twenty Tweets or Less. Here’s a sample from the reduction for The Great Gatsby:

“Two bad drives met. :O,”
“Gatsby is so emo. Who cries about his girlfriend while eating breakfast… IN THE POOL?”

Twenty years earlier, the same was attempted in verse in ShrinkLits: Seventy of the World’s Towering Classics Cut Down to Size. Here’s part of Gatsby is this reduction:

“Gatsby hoped to bring to bed
Old-flame Daisy, who is wed
But unhappy with her Tom.”

A little more penetrable, but that’s what you get in a reduction – something is lost. Whether it’s Poe as “Boo!” or a Reader Digest’s “Condensed” book (defunct in 1997), something has, by definition to be left out.

As they say in the Cliff’s Notes – it’s no substitute for reading the real thing.

Review of James Joyce’s Ulyssess, 1922


The 15 most boring books


Twitterature: The World’s Greatest Books in Twenty Tweets or Less





The Web site for a Montréal auto dealership recently informed its readership that “Toyota est toujours numéro un, mais par la peau des fesses,” literally, “Toyota is still number one, but by the skin of its buttocks.”  In English, of course, we’d be more likely to say that “Toyota is still number one, but by the skin of its teeth” (or, if “Toyota” is to be taken as referring  to the company rather than the automobile, “by the skin of their teeth”—we assume that the reference here is not to the company’s eponymous founder, in which case we would say “by the skin of his teeth”). In any case, we may wonder which part of the human anatomy the skin of one’s teeth might actually be and where “by the skin of one’s teeth” in the sense of “just barely” came from in the first place. (Why it’s “teeth” in English and “buttocks” in French is a separate matter.)

There is general agreement that the expression “by the skin of one’s teeth” has its origin in the Book of Job (Job 19:20, to be exact). After that, things get a bit murky, because there has never been an agreed-upon, canonical “The” Book of Job, as the following sampling of English renderings of  Job 19:20 makes clear:

  • Whanne fleischis weren wastid, my boon cleuyde to my skyn; and oneli lippis ben left aboute my teeth. [Wycliffe 1382, the first translation of both the Old and New Testaments to appear in (Middle) English]
  • My bone hangeth to my skynne, and the flesh is awaye, only there is left me the skynne aboute my teth. [Coverdale 1535]
  • My bone cleaueth to my skinne and to my flesh, and I haue escaped with the skinne of my teeth. [Geneva 1560]
  • My bone cleaveth to my skinne, and to my flesh, and I am escaped with the skinne of my teeth. [King James 1611]
  • The flesh being consumed, my bone hath cleaved to my skin, and nothing but lips are left about my teeth. [Douay-Rheims 1609]
  • My bones are joined to my skin, and I have got away with my flesh in my teeth. [Bible in Basic English 1949]
  • My bones cleave to my skin and to my flesh, and I have escaped by the skin of my teeth. [New Oxford Annotated Bible (1965), which includes the note: “I have escaped by the skin of my teeth, an expression of proverbial origin which has received many different interpretations, all of which are hypothetical.”]
  • My bones stick out through my skina, and I gnaw my underlip with my teeth. (a Prob. rdg.; Heb. adds and my flesh) [The New English Bible (1970)]

So: one or more bones, some skin, some flesh (usually), teeth, and (sometimes) one or more lips. Where did all these body parts come from and how did they get assembled? Entering the realm of the less known in the hope of explaining the known (ignotus per ignotium), we can say that the earliest English translators relied in varying degrees on three main sources—in Hebrew, Greek, and Latin—and, after the Reformation, on Martin Luther’s German translation of the Bible as well. The books you had at hand, your facility with the source languages, and to some extent the religious persuasion of your underwriter all influenced the end result.

Working backwards in time:

  • The Vulgate—St. Jerome’s late fourth-century (C.E.) translation into Latin from Hebrew and earlier Latin sources: Pelli meae, consumptis carnibus, adhaesit os meum, et derelicta sunt tantummodo labia circa dentes meos. (‘The flesh having wasted away, my bone sticks to my skin and only the lips around my teeth are left.’ It is fortuitous that the nominative singulars os ‘bone’ and ōs ‘mouth; the organ of speech, mouth, tongue, lips; face’ would have looked the same in Jerome’s time without the macron to distinguish them.)
  • The Septuagint, on which St. Jerome made a point of saying that he had not based his translation because of the many hands that had gone into writing and revising it since Ptolemy invited the apocryphal 72 translators (later rounded down to 70—septuaginta is Latin for ‘seventy’) to Alexandria towards the end of the third century B.C.E. to undertake to render the Hebrew Scriptures into Greek: εν δερματι μου εσαπησαν αι σαρκες μου τα δε οστα μου εν οδουσιν εχεται [en dermati mou esapēsan [h]ai sarkes mou ta de osta mou en odousin ekhestai] (‘My flesh has putrefied in my skin and my bones are held in teeth.’ Whose teeth? The usual guess is Job’s, but who knows?)
  • The Hebrew Tanakh—an acronym of the three component parts of the canonical Hebrew Bible, namely, Torah (‘Instruction’), Nevi’im (‘Prophets’), and Ketuvim (‘Writings,’ the section to which the Book of Job belongs):
    בעורי ובבשרי דבקה עצמי ואתמלטה בעור שני׃  [be’ori uvivsari davekah atsmi va’etmaletah be’or shinai] (‘My bone clings to my skin and to my flesh and I have escaped with the skin of my teeth.’)

Well, what to make of all this? Besides his skin and bones, what is Job left with? (Or, stretching it, since he still has several more chapters of suffering to go, what has he escaped with?) He can still speak coherently, Satan having been careful, according to some scholars, to guarantee that Job retain the ability to curse God, presumably with the full articulatory phonetic inventory of his native language, when he can’t take it any longer. But how much and which parts of his speech apparatus he still has has to remain a matter of conjecture, though the bottom line seems to be “not much, just enough.”