Watered Down Literature

I’m all for bringing literature in its various forms to everyone, regardless of education, ability and interest … but do you think watering down some of the “classics” is the way to go? Barnes & Noble’s CEO Steve Riggio says yes. B&N’s publishing unit, Sterling Publishing, has created a series of ten literary “classics” — retold in simpler language.

Barnes & Noble Inc.’s Sterling Publishing unit has launched a new line of 10 literary classics that appeal to both those who struggle to read and to avid younger students whose reading skills aren’t quite strong enough to let them master “The Adventures of Tom Sawyer” in its original. The books, which have been retold using simpler words, have been surprisingly hot sellers.

“There’s a large world of people with disabilities who can’t appreciate the classics because the books are too difficult,” says Barnes & Noble’s CEO Steve Riggio, whose daughter has Down syndrome.

Some critics say such books as Little Women should be seen in their original formats, but many educators (especially those assisting children with learning disabilities) say that these formats benefit the reader and allow the message of the stories to be enjoyed by everyone. The Classic Starts Series has been getting some flak for what some see as “dumbing down” great literary works, but this certainly isn’t the first time “the classics” have been altered or abridged for young readers (or older readers in a time crunch before a big exam — ahem). Great Illustrated Classics, anyone? I think that using these versions to introduce young people (with disabilities or not) to great literary characters and stories is a good thing and doesn’t threaten in any way the tradition and power of the originals.

What do you think?

20 Responses

  1. What I think …… is best
    What I think …

    … is best captured by the expression “Arggh”.

    I just don’t like it. I do think it’s a good point that this is nothing new — but I probably wouldn’t have liked the earlier versions either. At least I wish they’d publish the simplified works in comic book format, or something like that, to make it more clear that these are not the original books. If something is a book called “Little Women”, it should be the book “Little Women” and not something different.

    But that’s just me.

  2. Re-TitleI like the concept as

    I like the concept as a way to introduce the classics to those who have disabilities, trouble reading, etc. but I agree with Levi that they should be re-titled or otherwise modified graphically so there is no confusion on the shelves.

  3. For yearsTeaching english as
    For years

    Teaching english as a foreign language, I’m well aware of the preponderance of simplified classics.

    There are quite a few publishers who for years have been putting out simplified versions of great books in various levels of difficulty.

    Students enjoy reading these famous books in spite of the fact that I shake my head in disbelief when I look at the toned down version of “Great Expectations” or “Les Miserables”.

    Still, the essence of the book and even some of the original artistry of the writing is preserved.

    I hadn’t realized that the American public hasn’t been exposed to similar forms of literature.

    Why not? You never know who will start to enjoy reading when understanding the language is no longer an impossible reach.

    Of course, the book jacket should state the title, the author and by whom it’s been adapted.

  4. NOI am dead-set against

    I am dead-set against altering those classics! Millions of people have been able to read them as they are. It’s only hurting young people when you “dumb down” books which already exist. What they should do is have other books to help kids learn to read so they can get to the level of these classics like Tom Sawyer & Little Women. In fact, I seem to recall, we did have those simpler books. I remember one about Dick and Jane running. I believe a dog may have also ran in one of the sub-plots.
    I have no problem with Classics Illustrated “comic books” because kids & adults can discern the intrinsic difference between a regular book and a “comic book” – just like they can between an iPod and a See’N’Say. One goes, “The Rooster says Cockle-Doodle-Do” and the other one says,
    “Here they come to snuff the rooster
    Yeah here come the rooster, yeah
    You know he ain’t gonna die
    No, no, no, ya know he ain’t gonna die!”
    (Alice In Chains, Rooster)

    I’ll even accept one other way a classic can be rewritten. If the author is still alive and decides to rewrite it. For whatever reason. It belongs to the author. But I don’t think author’s estate should allow it to be done.

  5. I don’t think anyone’s
    I don’t think anyone’s mistaking these for the original versions. Especially the Great Illustrated Classics or the Oxford press Illustrated Classics. I mean unless Melville included doodles of Moby Dick. I think it’s easy to say “arggh” (nice pirate) and throw the baby out with the bathwater, but I think that these editions do have a place in the world of books, especially where kids who struggle are concerned.

    Also, just for the record, I don’t think that something radically different happens … like, I don’t think Jo pops a cap in Amy in the “altered” version of Little Women

  6. I agree that if it’s going to
    I agree that if it’s going to be done at all, it should at least be renamed.

  7. Hi Judih — I was hoping
    Hi Judih —

    I was hoping you’d chime in here … in your experience, do you find one series does a better job of capturing the essence of the original than another?

    I understand the reticence of messing with an original work, but I don’t see many people who are really interested in studying and reading the original version of say Moby Dick, mistaking the “Classic Starts” version for the real deal. Besides, they’re immenently more readable than Cliff Notes. I hear Levi is even going to come out with an altered and illustrated version of “The Summer of the Mets”. Ok … maybe I just made that up! But that would really be something …

  8. Summer of the Mets
    Summer of the Mets illustrated…

    This actually might have potential. By the same people who did BoHoS

  9. and screw oprah’s book club,
    and screw oprah’s book club, too

    I don’t know, man. I personally hope to be in Barnes & Noble someday and see an altered version of Moby Dick that pretends to be the original version as written by Herman Melville and opens with, “What up, motherfucker? I’m Ishmael.” Because, you know, why not? Is the original opening line really so sacred? Would Herman Melville actually care? (Last time I checked, he was dead.) I really have nothing to add to this paragraph; I just wanted to say “motherfucker” today. Okay, wait. Yes I do. Because I changed my mind. I’d rather see Moby Dick: Dumbass Version on the shelves, because I’m all for creating stigma.


    Anyway, I think reading is a good thing, and if there’s something out there that makes the world of literature more accessible to people who may otherwise be intimidated by it, then I say hurrah and pass the scotch.

    Seriously. Pass the scotch.

  10. Bohos (Image/Flypaper Press)
    Bohos (Image/Flypaper Press) Maggie Whorf, Byron Penaranda, Alex Sinclair

    Bohos is a miniseries that peeks into the world of pop-culture-soaked teen life via the eyes of four friends. This is not your typical book aimed sloppily at teens or featuring poorly written stereotypical teens; this is written by a teenager who knows what she’s talking about. Maggie Whorf, the youngest female writer to be published in the comics industry, shows us what really goes on in the heads of teens. The beautiful thing about Bohos is how well Maggie allows the reader to empathize with the characters – not an easy task with teenagers, who usually are the most misunderstood creatures of all. So while many adults may think that teens’ concerns are so much pop-culture fluff, Maggie shows us just why they are so important to how her generation ticks – and ultimately what made each us tick at that (most likely embarrassing) point in our lives.

    The art is kicky, irreverent and fun, perfect for the storyline. My only complaint is that the coloring could be simpler. But aside from that, this book is worthy of a definite look-see. I don’t care if you’re 16 or 26 or 56, male, female, or other. Pick Bohos up.

  11. You’re just stirring up
    You’re just stirring up trouble, Missy. If I pass you this here scotch, all th’ kids will want some scotch. Then theyw’l drop inhibitions and start learning some Melville for real! That’s all fine and good ’till they end up on a barstool quoting Dylan Thomas, wearin’ ice bucket onna heads. Yeeeeeaahhhhhh

    You know SAam Clemens? You know Sam cLeMoNs? I’LL change dumb down his dawlogg.

    “Huck says, ‘If those church people don’t like my friend, I ain’t GONE to that church any more!’ ” is all I’m sayin.

  12. Yes, sure! I wasn’t certain I
    Yes, sure! I wasn’t certain I could plug a publisher here, but since you asked, I’ve always liked Longman’s Classics.

    click this link to get an idea of the titles available:
    Longman’s Classics

  13. On Second ThoughtMy initial
    On Second Thought

    My initial thought when I first heard this was No Way They Can’t Do That! I had visions of Riggio trying to monopolize the book industry any way he can just to make a couple extra sales. (It’s bottom line people, bottom line.)

    Then I had second thoughts. After all, didn’t I start getting interested in novels by reading my mom’s Reader’s Digest Condensed versions as a little kid? Didn’t I lazily slide through high school out of sheer boredom w/ a copy of Cliff’s Notes in my pocket?

    So I’ve decided to not be so judgemental against Riggio. Maybe he has a point. He’s not doing anything that hasn’t been done before. But at the same time, I cringe at the thought of anyone ever changing my future classics.

  14. I agree, we already have
    I agree, we already have Illustrated Classics & classic stories to get younger readers into classic literature, so the question becomes why is causing a sensation? Because what they are saying doesn’t quite ring true, what they are trying to do is water down literature to the readers level & not lift the reader to the writer’s level. I mean, in 7th grade I was introduced to 1984 & A Separate Peace among others, where would I be if I didn’t have to struggle to figure out what the author was talking about? Sure there were concepts I didn’t understand, that’s why we have teachers & asking questions, all valid methods of learning. By high school I was interested in Shakespeare & it escalated from there, what if the youth of today are handed all the answers & see literature as nothing more than watered down concepts to answer true or false on a test.

  15. Moby Dick for Dummies! I
    Moby Dick for Dummies! I think I like the concept, in theory. We have more than enough dummies books already.

    While Herman maybe dead I think he would mind his work being changed, as would Hemingway, Kerouac, Twain, Mailer, EVERYBODY! There’s a reason the writer wrote things & the way he did it, it’s up to the reader to figure it out, & not some editor a century later. The reader has to presuppose the writer knows just a little more than the reader does.

  16. I feel the same way. My
    I feel the same way. My first reaction was very negative, but then, on second thought … these books aren’t going to damage the world any.

    And, when I think about it, I got a hell of a lot of my knowledge of film and literature from Mad magazine. Most of it, in fact.

  17. Damn – how could I forget
    Damn – how could I forget about Mad Magazine? Of course I don’t read it anymore.

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