July 12, 2011

Boats Against the Current

Oh, dear Lord.  Save us from abridgments, adaptations, retelling, and the dumbing down of poetry. From Roger Ebert, via Deacon Greg Kandra:

I learn that the Margaret Tarner “retelling” employs an Intermediate Level vocabulary of “about 1,600 basic words.” Upper Level students can feast on 2,200 basic words.

There are so many things I want to say about this that even an Upper Level vocabulary may prove inadequate.

The first is: There is no purpose in “reading” The Great Gatsby unless you actually read it. Fitzgerald’s novel is not about a story. It is about how the story is told. Its poetry, its message, its evocation of Gatsby’s lost American dream, is expressed in Fitzgerald’s style–in the precise words he chose to write what some consider the great American novel. Unless you have read them, you have not read the book at all. You have been imprisoned in an educational system that cheats and insults you by inflicting a barbaric dumbing-down process. You are left with the impression of having read a book, and may never feel you need return for a closer look.

...Readers of the actual novel must have been dismayed to learn that this edition with its 1,600 words arrives at the conclusion: "But he cannot be blamed for that. Gatsby was a success, in the end, wasn't he?"

No possible reading of the book, however stupid, could possibly conclude that. One wonders if Margaret Tarner was elaborating after having read the novel at a Beginner Level ("about 300 basic words").

My name is Nick. This is my friend. His name is Jay. Jay has a big house. See his house.

What depresses me is what this Macmillan Reader edition says about our American educational system. Any high school student who cannot read The Great Gatsby in the original cannot read. That student has been sold a bill of goods. We know that teachers at the college level complain that many of their students cannot read and write competently. If this is an example of a book they are assigned, can they be blamed?

Read the whole piece here.  And weep.

PS. You can visit Fitzgerald's grave in Rockville, MD, a few steps from the metro.
PPS: Update: friend and high-school English teacher shared this comment from one of her students: "Reading stuff by this guy is like watching tv in HD. It's so much cooler."  Truth.

1 comment:

  1. Ten bagillion cheers for you (and this article), Maggie! I have had this very discussion with many of my students.

    The best comment I've ever had from a student about Fitzgerald was this past year. Junior boy said, "Ms. Pukstas? Reading stuff by this guy is like watching tv in HD. It's so much cooler."