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