To Make a Long Story Short...

| 7/23/2008 1:33:13 PM

a very tiny bookJohn Crace is sort-of like CliffsNotes—except cheeky, erudite, and with a nice accent. In his column for the Guardian, The Digested Read, the British journalist condenses contemporary books into pithy 700-word stories. Sometimes satirical, always spot-on, Crace’s abridgements often reveal as much as traditional reviews. Compare his take on the latest Bond novel, Devil May Care, with the New York Times appraisal. Same message, disparate delivery.

Lately, Crace has made a couple of appealing changes. First, he’s started doing an audio version of select columns. Then, around the same time he commenced podcasting, Crace began condensing the occasional classic, such as Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway and Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness.

The digested classics are a kick, in column or podcast format, because they offer readers and listeners a chance to compare (perhaps foggy) recollections of a text with the freshly condensed version. Even if you haven’t read Heart of Darkness for decades, Crace’s digested version sings with familiar phrases and nimbly selected scenes: the memorable bits that lodged in your brain even as the rest faded away. Identifying those bits, that’s where a good excerpt begins.

Crace’s column is weekly, and the podcasts show up intermittently. The most recent content, just posted today, is a reading of the digested Love in the Time of Cholera by Gabriel García Márquez. The column version ran this past weekend.

Image by wmshc_kiwi, licensed under Creative Commons.

7/25/2008 7:53:21 PM

to me, that sounds like one more thing society is in "hurry up" mode about. It seems like no one takes the time anymore to do anything unless it can be in the most efficient use of time possible,and then two or three things at once. The more you can get done....hurry, hurry! I'd prefer to sit down with the original and take my time......and discover all of the parts for myself and not have someone hand-feed them to me.

Julie Hanus
7/24/2008 3:56:22 PM

Well, yes, I suppose it would be boring to let someone else dictate a book’s high points, and yes, books—in all their leisurely, lengthy glory—are well suited to exploring big ideas and themes. (I highlighted exactly that argument in my environmental lit post on Tuesday, in fact.) I think you’re missing the point a bit: Crace’s columns aren’t meant to take the place of novels, or provide readers with some pedantic run-down of the best parts—they’re fun. They’re satire. They’re reviews. They’re… well, I’d almost go so far as to say they’re part of a whole tradition of extremely-abridged-versions-made-for-entertainment. The “MacBeth in 5 Minutes,” that your local improv troop puts on, or (geek alert) the 8-minute recap of the SciFi channel’s Battlestar Galactica. And the really interesting thing about digests is the way they can simultaneously look forward and backward. Forward in the sense that they can tell you something new—the Bond digest served as a review, for example, but I’d argue in any case that what a writer chooses to preserve (and how) reveals an assessment of the text, draws out themes, points to insufficiencies, etc. Backward in the sense that digests also can play off pre-existing knowledge of the complete text. What I most enjoyed about listening to Crace’s Heart of Darkness digest was the way his selection of certain phrases and scenes triggered vivid memories of something I read long, long ago—and had all but forgotten.

7/24/2008 10:34:54 AM

This column is a great find! I'll definitely be listening to some of Crace's podcasts, but I will stick to the non-fiction books like _Snoop_. I often look at those books in the airport shops and wonder how people can devote hours to reading pop psychology or business management reading. (Long layovers and delays, I guess, that's how.) A ten-minute summary is much more palatable to me. As far as the condensed novels go, I'm a little leery. Doesn't letting someone else pick out the book's high points rob you of the opportunity to discern what you as a reader enjoy? I'm not sure I would entrust that responsibility to anyone but myself! Plus, I'm not sure that novels really lend themselves to distillations...aren't they better suited to the leisurely development and exploration of ideas and themes? -Lisa Gulya

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