Novel tweetment for classics


Two young American students have managed to compress some 60 ‘Great Reads’ into a slim Penguin paperback of ‘Twitterature’, writes FIONA McCANN

‘I’M HAVIN’ a midlife crisis. Lost in the woods. Shoulda brought my iPhone.” Recognise these famous opening lines? They’re from Dante Alighieri’s Inferno, duh, but in, like, a new “translation” for the 2.0 generation of web-speaking social networkers. Those responsible are Chicago college students Alexander Aciman and Emmett Rensin, and Dante’s Inferno is just one of the classics to get the tweet-ment by these two in their new book, Twitterature: the World’s Greatest Books Retold Through Twitter.

Others canonical titles to get reworked into 20 “tweets” or less include Shakespeare’s Hamlet – “WTF IS POLONIUS DOING BEHIND THE CURTAIN?”; Homer’s Iliad– “Brb, need to go wrestle a river god”; and our own Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels– “Picked up by flying city. They’ve invented bombs and the computer. In the seventeenth century. Perhaps I’ll see the foresight of this in 300 years.”

Each tweet follows the truncated form popularised by Twitter, where messages are transmitted in 140 characters or less. Sound like a complicated premise? Aciman and Rensin are betting otherwise, making the point in the book’s introduction that their intention was entirely the contrary.

“We give you the means to absorb the strong voices, valuable lessons and stylistic innovations of the Greats without the burdensome duty of hours spent reading,” the two authors, both 19-year-old students at the University of Chicago, promise.

And true to form, they’ve managed to compress some 60 classics – including hefty tomes like Tolstoy’s Anna Kareninaand Cervantes’ Don Quixote– into a slim Penguin paperback that comes in at under 150 pages. Their introduction continues in a similar vein: “While some may describe the reinvention of our world’s Great Works to suit the ever-

evolving brain of the modern man as ‘a triviality’, ‘a travesty’, or ‘that sucks’, we prefer to think of ourselves as modern day Martin Luthers.”

OMG, surely that leaves them open to accusations of devaluing the classics with their latest project?

“We had someone on Twitter who said they were going to come to Chicago and assault us,” admits Rensin, though he adds that this doesn’t represent the general view. “It’s been mostly positive, and I think people who really appreciate the literary canon can understand and appreciate the book.”

Rensin and Aciman would be first to point to their own appreciation of the books they send up in Twitterature: after all, both are avid readers, with Rensin majoring in English and Philosophy and Aciman in Comparative Literature.

“We’re not taunting these classics,” insists Rensin. “We’re prodding them in a loving way. If you know a person you’re going to tickle them or tease them a bit. It’s not something that’s done out of malice! Usually it requires a level of intimacy that makes that kind of playfulness necessary. You need to love these books in order to tousle their hair!”

With all this joshing, where does Twitter come in?

“There are certain things that you can extract out of the form,” he explains of the truncated messages through which Twitter users communicate. “The wit and the essence [of these books] can be extracted through Twitter.”

Though he describes the social networking site as “almost the antithesis of literature”, he points out that “the internet is a forum for the id, and Twitter encapsulates that. . . . in terms of content you can say anything”.

The book reflects that, with its irreverent approach to Oedipus’s guilt-wracked revelations and self-punishment – “Oh well. Must keep on trucking to Colonus. Wish I had a seeing-eye dog. Glad I learned touch-typing” – and deadpan take on Medea’s marital conflict: “Jason very unhappy I murdered the children. Told him to go bury HIS WIFE! I thought it was a great comeback but it didn’t help.”

Clearly, the emphasis is on the comic, with the target as much the delivery format as the books involved. “In a certain way the book jokes as heavily on Twitter as it does on the classics.”

The idea came to Rensin and Aciman, who were college roommates in their first year, during a long, cold Chicago winter, but once they had hit on the formula and had their book proposal accepted, the first draft was completed in a mere 12 days, a considerable improvement on the length of time the originals took to pen. Are they concerned that the opportunity for such digested reads could discourage a new generation, with its allegedly shortening attention span, from picking up the classics that inspired them?

“It’s not Cliff notes, or York notes,” Rensin insists, noting that Twitteratureis less about replacing the original texts so much as about complementing them. “Good pastiche requires some familiarity with the subject matter. A Modest Proposal is funnier if you’re familiar with absentee landlord issues in Ireland than if you’re not.”

In other words, this book is more likely to appeal to those who have already read the originals, though its authors hope it may also encourage those who have yet to do so.

“We’re really just here in service to the people,” says Rensin with heavy irony. “We just want to make the children laugh, howsoever we can make them laugh, and perhaps if we can educate them a tiny bit, we can do that.”

So are they worried about giving people one more excuse not to thumb their way painstakingly through Virgil or Flaubert? Could their work be heralding the long-predicted death of reading as we know it?

Not according to these American teenagers. “You should have read some real books,” says Rensin to potential Twitteraturereaders. “But if you’ve just put down Don Quixote and you want to take up War and Peace, you might want to take up something in between to race through.” It’ll have you ROTFL.

Twitterature: The World’s Greatest Books Retold Through Twitter, by Alexander Aciman and Emmett Rensin, is published in Penguin Paperback