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Book Review: A Side Dish of Literature, Please

6:23 PM, Jan 13, 2010 • By KATHERINE EASTLAND
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The latest dose of literature for the snarky smart set is here. Its title? twitterature. This brief book sums up over eighty works in the Western canon in "twenty tweets or less," each one comprising, of course, no more than 140 characters.

Book Review: A Side Dish of Literature, Please

Classics tweeted range from Beowulf to Madame Bovary, Lady Chatterly’s Lover to the Canterbury Tales, Lysistrata to The Waste Land. And for good measure, pop culture gets a twittering home, too: There’s Twilight, the Harry Potter books (1-7), and The Da Vinci Code. Several sample tweets are available here on Penguin’s site for the book.

Though the book might seem novel, we’ve seen variations on this theme before—CliffNotes, comic book retellings of great books, such as Albert Louis Kanter’s, or of various philosophies, etc.—and each variation has its own intention. Some are made in the sincere hope of making the classics cool, others are made as practical study guides, and some are made for sake of having smart fun while pinning a few jaunty images to a plotline.

But twitterature, partly to its credit, is tongue-in-cheek. The book toys with the classics—a fair reminder that they aren’t sacred or inerrant—and pokes fun at Twitter because, really, it’s obvious that Tolstoy and Twitter don’t mix. It also parodies well the voice of many microbloggers (which is a voice ripe for parody, as illustrated in a print piece by our own Andrew Ferguson). Consider this tweet by prince Hamlet, aka OedipusGothplex: “2bornt2b? Can one tweet beyond the mortal coil?” Or this one, from The Great Gatsby: “"Some dude is standing on the bay with his arms up looking at a symbolic light. The Midwest didn't have so many metaphors! What a CREEP!"

As the WSJ says, “Do you hear that? It’s the sound of Shakespeare, rolling over in his grave.”

No, twitterature isn’t being marketed as an aid for understanding the books it cuts to fit twitter’s 140-character-long bed of Procrustes. It’s merely for those who are familiar with the classics and want a good, snarky laugh. But to what end? In making fun of both the new and the old, and doing so with scant engagement with the classics, what does this book stand for?

But this admittedly unserious book might be best understood not by asking a heady question but by looking at its authors, their picture and bio here. Emmett Rensin and Alex Aciman, as the Greek language would have it, are at the moment “wise fools”—two rising sophomores at the University of Chicago.

While standing on the shoulders of giants and giggling, they just might get their wish: to “take the market by storm” with what they argue is a book with “literary merit” and “pure-money genius.”

Perhaps. In the meantime, it's worth remembering how Eliot diagnosed his time and ours when he wrote in the very poem Aciman and Rensin abbreviate to make a point similar to Eliot’s: that we’re “distracted from distraction by distraction.” And that, I might add, is only 42 characters long.


Twitterature
The World's Greatest Books in Twenty Tweets or Less
by Alexander Aciman and Emmett Rensin
Penguin; 224pp.; $12.00

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