My trip to the library on Friday started with slight disappointment but ended with a flurry of thoughts about what we – as readers, scholars, editors, people of the present – do to and with literature of the past. First, the disappointment.
The book I had on hold was ready to be picked up and brought home, but as I sat down to read a chapter or two before leaving the library, I realized this was the third in the All Souls Trilogy and I thought I had placed a hold on the second. Having to return to the desk and explain my mistake was embarrassing but I was able to put a hold on the correct title which, sadly, is checked out until August. So my plea to whoever has the book now is to please return it ASAP; I’m desperate. Thank you.
Moving on from my mistake, I went back to the fiction section for more browsing and to add more titles to my Goodreads TBR list. This library does not use the Dewey Decimal System, so I went alphabetically from author to author, noticing old editions mixed in with new, hardcovers and paperbacks side by side, and multiple copies of many books. James Joyce filled some space on a shelf, Finnegans Wake taking up a few inches with its large binding. Next to it, two copies of A Shorter Finnegans Wake caught my eye, and I will admit, I had to chuckle as I pulled it away from its spot on the shelf.
James Joyce is not an author I have read – here’s some space for anyone gasping out there – although he is known “for his experimental use of language and exploration of new literary methods” in the twentieth century.¹ I have not yet found my way past the 18th and 19th centuries that I love so much so that is my given reason for not exploring Joyce. JJ? Would that be an inappropriate nickname? Yes, that is absurd.
Anyway, this abridged version of James Joyce’s novel inflicted chuckling for two reasons. The first of disbelief: why shorten a novel that holds significant importance within the canon? Just read the whole thing for goodness sake! The second of the informality of the title: Not Finnegans Wake: Abridged or Finnegans Wake for Young Adults. The editors used the exhausting length (the edition pictured is 628 pages long) to lure readers to the shorter version. Or maybe they were just tired of the sometimes formal titles of shortened literature. No matter; I found it humorous.
Of course, even though I have never read this behemoth of a book, I still felt some maternal/readerly instinct to protect its contents that are surely chopped, butchered, and minimized in the shorter version. The foreword by Anthony Burgess, however, calms this particular outrage, although I’m not sure it could ever be stifled. He admits that “Reducing the book to something over a third of its original length [was] painful and difficult” but it’s in his explanation for why he took on the task of reduction that is the calming agent:
Ulysses and Finnegans Wake are highly idiosyncratic and “difficult” books, admired more often than read, when read rarely read through to the end, when read through to the end not often fully, or even partially, understood.
And yet there are people who not only claim to understand a great deal of these books but affirm great love for them…Such people feel impelled to take on the task of advocacy, so that others should not miss what the devotees consider to be a profound literary pleasure, and this present reduction of Finnegans Wake to the length of an ordinary novel…is my own attempt to bring a great masterpiece to a larger audience than, in the twenty-five years of its existence, it has yet been able to command.²
As an English major in college and a literary lover in everyday life, there is this pressure to know the almighty writers, the reflective prose, and the literary-changing techniques utilized throughout time. But what does this pressure do, exactly? For me, it stretches my mind to read challenging novels, historical accounts, and sometimes wondering why in the world a piece of literature or an author is held at such high esteem (three days ago marked the 117th birthday of one in particular). But as Burgess wrote, many novels lay unread on my shelves, half read, or their contents did not trickle down deep into my mind enough to show for my reading.
But what does this mean for classics, and novels that were so advanced or revolutionary in their time that they remain relevant in ours? Why are original texts changed to reflect our vocabularies or understanding, transforming a work of art into a watered down mass-market print that hangs on a wall in your dentist’s office? It certainly helps that these shortened versions are not just written by Joe Schmoe on the street; we trust scholars and intellectuals to present us with comprehensive texts that will perhaps drive us to tackle the larger, original work. Is that what it’s about? Starting off in what may be a more comprehensive manner and then graduating to A Longer Finnegans Wake?
My questions and complaints do not come from a place where I believe everyone should read novels A, B, C, and D and take the same thing away from all of them. Rather, I’m concerned about preserving and maintaining the genius and hard work of the original writer. I can say with utmost certainty that James Joyce did not set out to write his 600+ page novel in hopes that one day someone would come along and reduce it to roughly 250 pages so that his words could be more comprehensive to his readers. If a condensed version is favored – or more widely read – over the original, don’t the readers, future writers, and society miss out?
¹Atherton, James Stephen. “James Joyce.” Britannica. July 24th, 2016. https://www.britannica.com/biography/James-Joyce
²Joyce, James. Foreword to A Shorter Finnegans Wake, Edited by Anthony Burgess. New York: The Viking Press, 1967.