I had lunch today with a friend who reads out loud to his wife (and she to him). They’ve been doing it for years, and are quite ambitious in their choice of material. Not long ago, they finished reading Don Quixote to one another–but not in its entirety. They skipped most of the self-contained episodes not involving the Don and Sancho Panza, and my friend guesses that they ended up reading only about 80% of the book, if not a bit less. Even so, it took them roughly two months to wrap the whole thing up.
This got us to talking about the question of loooong books, and whether or not it’s proper to abridge them, or read abridgements of them. One celebrated case in point is Boswell’s Life of Johnson, a book I love with all my heart, but which I now prefer to read in the ruthless abridgement Louis Kronenberger made for inclusion in Viking’s Portable Johnson & Boswell (long out of print, though it shouldn’t be). Similarly, any number of plays and operas are customarily staged with cuts, and I see no reason for zealous producers to discontinue that merciful practice. Even Shakespeare benefits from trimming.
All this makes me wonder whether my attention span might possibly be shrinking as I grow older. I suspect it is, and I suspect I know why. For one thing, younger people have energy to burn, as well as the idealism necessary to propel themselves from one end of Siegfried to the other. After all, they’re still getting their cultural cards punched. My card, by contrast, is pretty well punched out, though I still have yet to read The Possessed, or see a production of Peer Gynt. What’s more, my appetite for the new is sufficiently strong that I’m disinclined to see yet another Tristan or Giselle. I already know how those masterpieces go, and I doubt I’ll be changing my mind about them at this point in my life, at least not to any significant degree.
Besides, how many more novels do I have time to read, or plays to see? If I’m lucky, I’m somewhere on the far side of the middle of life, meaning that every book I read brings me that much closer to the dark encounter (or, as Henry James called it, the distinguished thing). This knowledge doesn’t fill me with the desire to read nothing but great literature between now and then–man cannot live by classics alone–but it does make me less willing to devote disproportionate tracts of time to the consumption of individual works of art that violate the iron law of aesthetic economy. Do I really want to read Proust again before I die? The answer is yes, but I have my doubts about Moby-Dick, nor do I have the faintest intention of revisiting Lohengrin.
The older I get, the more I treasure those artists blessed with the twin gifts of terseness and lightness. Oddly enough, these gifts aren’t always granted in tandem: James’ middle-period novels, for instance, are long and light, which is why I can still read them with pleasure. Likewise The Marriage of Figaro, though I freely confess that I prefer the much shorter Falstaff. When I say “light,” by the way, I don’t mean “frivolous.” I’m talking about texture. There’s nothing the least bit frivolous about The Moviegoer, but Walker Percy’s prose isn’t thick–it flows with ingratiating ease. Similarly, George Balanchine was the most serious of artists, but he never beat you over the head with his profundity. Symphony in C is a supremely great work of art so light that it seems to fly past the eye in a matter of seconds. I could watch it once a week.
Which brings us back to one of my unpunched holes: I’ve never read Don Quixote. As I listened to my friend describe the pleasure that he and his wife got out of reading it to one another, I found myself sorely tempted to give it a go–but if I do, I’ll skip at will, and I’d be perfectly happy to read a well-made abridgement. Whatsoever thy hand findeth to do, says the Good (and Long) Book, do it with all thy might. That’s good advice, but so is this: The night cometh when no man can work. It was one of Dr. Johnson’s favorite Biblical verses, and as Boswell informs us, “He scarcely ever read a book through from cover to cover in his life, but he had the faculty of seizing the essence of any work of literature by judicious skipping.” As usual, I’m with Johnson. I’d rather have read some of a lot of books than all of a few.