In a brilliant blog post yesterday, film critic Roger Ebert lays into Macmillan Reader Editions for putting out a “dumbed down” version of The Great Gatsby. This series, apparently, is designed to relieve high school students of that nasty responsibility of parsing complex sentences and ideas by spoon-feeding the text to them with fewer (and shorter) words and none of those pesky metaphors, similes, or allusions.
Which, according to Ebert, defeats the purpose of reading great literature. Or, as he puts it,
“There is no purpose in ‘reading’ The Great Gatsby unless you actually read it. Fitzgerald’s novel is not about a story. It is about how the story is told. Its poetry, its message, its evocation of Gatsby’s lost American dream, is expressed in Fitzgerald’s style–in the precise words he choose to write what some consider the great American novel. Unless you have read them, you have not read the book at all. You have been imprisoned in an educational system that cheats and insults you by inflicting a barbaric dumbing-down process. You are left with the impression of having read a book, and may never feel you need return for a closer look.”
Along with doing our children a great disservice by stripping from them the opportunity to learn and to stretch their minds, I fear that this edition of Gatsby (and, God help me, other “retellings”) could set up a lifetime aversion to challenging reading. This is bad for the individual and does not bode well for our culture. Breaking down classic literature into “manageable” plot lines is as wrong-headed as censorship. Both crimes prevent readers from experiencing an author’s vision of the world and its inhabitants as he or she intended.
But, you may be saying, isn’t it better to offer students a book they can easily read and regurgitate for good test scores rather than giving them one that’s too challenging?
No. No, no, no, no, no.
Sure, I wasn’t wild about Shakespeare in high school. Mainly because I hated the idea of someone telling me what I should be reading. I hated the personal agendas of certain English teachers. But I’m grateful for the gift of great literature. I learned how to read critically. I learned about different cultures. In my little corner of nearly all-white exurbia, I learned about the world.
Through reading I also learned how to write, because reading the masters is how we get better. Reading amazing books like The Great Gatsby, The Grapes of Wrath, Catcher in the Rye, and A Visit from the Goon Squad, for a modern example, make me want to be a better writer.
Greatness begets greatness, in my opinion. Part of the teaching of great authors involves a study of their artistic influences. Or, as Isaac Newton wrote, “If I have seen further than others, it was only by standing upon the shoulders of giants.” How can a new generation see further if they’re standing on the bare, osteoporotic bones of plot summation?