Where is the wisdom we have lost in knowledge?
Where is the knowledge we have lost in information?
- T.S. Eliot
I've never understood the point of abridging Shakespeare. As a child, I remember reading this book called Tales from Shakespeare by Charles and Mary Lamb - the book left me completely cold. The stories seemed lifeless, needlessly complex and, in most cases, fairly absurd. I wondered what the fuss was about. Then, at fourteen, out of sheer boredom, I read Twelfth Night, and "felt like some watcher of the skies / When a new planet swims into his ken". It seems a trite thing to say, I know, but that one afternoon, rich with its intimations of poetry, of the dizzying possibilities of language, changed my life forever.
The point is not simply that the Lamb book was a henious travesty of the original. The point is that it was a dangerous travesty - because it offered the reader the seductive idea that he / she knew about Shakespeare or had 'read' him, whereas in reality nothing could be farther from the truth. This wasn't a harmless little book - it was the vilest, most potentially damaging book you could give your child to read - I'd rather give an eight year old a copy of Playboy than a copy of Tales from Shakespeare (and no, for a change, I'm not trying to be cruel to children!). In general I'm not for censorship, but if there's one book that I would support making bonfires of, one book whose copies should be rounded up and burnt in the public square, it would be Tales from Shakespeare.
So you can imagine how horrified I was to read this. (hat tip: Prufrock) Classics on sms? Why don't they just offer free lobotomies instead? They'd probably be more painless. It almost makes you hope that cell phone radiations are actually carcinogenic and all the people who subscribe to this service are going to end up with brain tumours because, let's face it, it's their only shot at mental growth. Classics on sms forsooth!
Why? Why can't people just leave the classics alone? Isn't there enough crap published every year for them to mess around with? All those thousands of books that are steadily reversing the process of paper making and converting perfectly good paper back into pulp? If you want to save the forests, go convert the Da Vinci code to an sms ('Gibberish, gibberish, gibberish' - there, now you can claim to have read it) or murder hacks like Chetan Bhagat (I'd pay for an sms version called One very, very short night at the call centre - at least the grammar would be better). Why go after Shakespeare for God's sake? It's bad enough that we have random film versions of Austen - but at least those have Keira Knightley - but this? Who says the classics should be made more accessible, anyway? That's all wrong - the classics are books you deserve, books you earn the right to read. I wouldn't consider someone who's only read the sms version of Romeo and Juliet literate, let alone educated.
The thing I was reminded of while reading the article was a phrase from Martin Amis' Yellow Dog - 'high IQ morons'. That's what we're creating, a society of digitised souls, of miniaturised intelligences. A society where technological savvy has become a substitute for good, old fashioned thought. I'm no Luddite, but I think it's time we realised that intelligence is only marginally about fact and analysis, that there are deeper wellsprings of creativity and silence that go into the making of intellect, the making of what we once called (even the word seems archaic now) wisdom. Yeats writes: "How can they know / Truth flourishes where the student's lamp has shone / And there alone".
Meanwhile, of course, I'm waiting to get my sms version of Aristotle.