Friday, August 30, 2013

The Unabridged Count of Monte Cristo Blog Post

Currently Reading: Moby Dick by Herman Melville

When I originally sat down to write my post on Alexandre Dumas’s The Count of Monte Cristo, I had every intention of simply discussing my thoughts about and impressions of the book. I wanted to discuss the impressive intricacies of Edmond Dantes’ revenge plans; the disappointment in watching him deteriorate from a wonderfully charming, likeable young man to a vengeful, almost creepy, bitter man; the somewhat weird relationship he had with Haydee that seemed to walk the line between father-daughter and lovers a little too closely; and the dissatisfaction of the ending, which I expected to be completely different since I was basely my expectations off the movie adaptation. Essentially, I had every intention of writing a normal reaction post.

Because I’ve been fairly miserable about keeping my blog up to date with my reading, it’s been about two months since I finished The Count of Monte Cristo. So I decided to review the plot (shamefully) on its Wikipedia page. As I read the summary, I became more and more confused. I have no memory of that, I thought as I read. When did that happen? Since when did those characters have an affair? 

I grew concerned. Is my memory really going at the tender age of 23?

I turned to a co-worker who I knew had read the novel. (Another bonus of working at a library: everyone is really well read!) After discussing the various gaps I encountered in the summary, it turns out Wikipedia wasn’t at fault for them. Those missing parts were really in the book.

At least, they were in the original version of the book.

That’s right. I came home to discover that my copy of The Count of Monte Cristo had deceptively snuck in this title page:

Mind you, nowhere on the cover is there a mention of abridgement! And who really reads the title page?

I felt robbed. Someone had stolen part of the story from me.

And in my frustration (and if we're being honest, my devastation), I realized that this incident raised some very interesting questions for me.

I don’t really have answers to most of these, but I would be SO GRATEFUL if anyone had some to offer me!

First of all, why do abridgements exist? Why do people feel the need to make abridged versions of novels? I understand that some novels are insanely hefty, but why has it become OK to say that you only want to read part of the novel, not the whole thing? If you only want to have a general idea of what it’s about, why wouldn’t you just read the SparkNotes or find a summary some other way? If you don’t want to bother with the original version, why do you want to bother with it at all?

Also, how did this movement towards abridgements get started? Is this something that’s been going on for hundreds of years or is this something that’s become part of what my mother affectionately refers to as “the dumbing down of America”? Or are abridgements necessary in some cases, like when teaching a novel in a classroom?

Who makes the decision to cut down novels? How do they decide which parts to cut out or shorten? How do they decide which books to cut? And if there seems to be a book that people universally agree should be shorter (like Les Miserables), shouldn’t there be an effort to just make one abridged edition so people reading the abridged version are at least having one universal experience? Plus, wouldn’t that eliminate the chances that you would read a bad abridgement, one that jumps around and skips major plot points?

Finally, do abridged versions count? Can I now say that I’ve read The Count of Monte Cristo? Or can I only proclaim that when I’ve read it the way it was written by the author, i.e. in its entirety? I think, on the whole, I got the majority of the key plot points. I’m pretty sure I got all the characters, if not all the parts of their stories. In other words, I believe I read a pretty good abridgement, but does that mean I’ve read the novel?

When will the book slashing end?!

And what do you think?

Like I said, I really don’t have answers for these questions, but I would love to know. I’d also love to know if abridgements bother everyone the way they bother me or if some people appreciate or even prefer them? 

In the meantime, I’ll continue to be paranoid that every book I’m reading is a secret abridgement. I sincerely hope that this already 586 page version of Moby Dick isn’t…

Friday, August 16, 2013

Some People (in Camelot) Claim That There’s A Woman to Blame

Currently Reading: The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck 

The Once and Future King by T. H. White chronicles the life and reign of the famous King Arthur of Camelot, as well as the love affair between his most trusted knight and friend, Lancelot, and his wife, Guenever, which eventually leads to his kingdom’s downfall. It’s a much more in depth version of the story than I’ve ever heard, probably because the basis for my knowledge of this legend come from the Disney cartoon The Sword and the Stone and a few clips of the musical Camelot, which I never had the patience to sit through in its entirety. Discovering all the details of the story, including the incestuous conception of Arthur’s only son, Mordred, was fascinating and made reading this hefty 500-page book enjoyable overall. 

The parts that dragged for me a bit were the philosophical aspects that T. H. White added, musing over the man’s aggressive nature, war, and morality for his post-World War II audience. I’ve never been one for philosophy as it tends to make me feel like a dog chasing its tail, running around and around in circles debating a topic, but never able to achieve the desired goal. However, I have to say that White’s exploration of these lofty topics was pretty accessible and actually kind of fascinating in parts. I especially enjoyed them during Arthur’s childhood lessons from animals, particularly the adventure with the geese who point out how ridiculous the notions of property, boundaries, and ultimately nations are.

It does make me wonder, though, that I can only understand and enjoy philosophy that’s meant for a child’s intellect… 

On the whole, this book was lengthy, but enjoyable. I just have one rather significant complaint:

The women in this book SUCK!

T. H. White writes women like they are as foreign a species as the ants or geese, basically only capable of sense and good judgment “in the long years that bring women to the middle of life,” when they “are beginning to hate [their] used bod[ies].” Before that, they are apparently slaves to their hormones, moody, changeable, and incapable of suppressing their sexual appetites.

Despite the fact that Arthur’s knights are supposedly defending women from rapists on a regular basis, it never seems like men have any desire to have sex at any point in this book. When they do, they push it down and channel the energy elsewhere. The only times men do have sex is when they have been tricked into it by an evil seductress. Arthur’s half-sister, Morgause seduces him through magic; Elaine gets Lancelot drunk and convinces him she’s Guenever to get him in bed; Morgause continues on to apparently sleep with pretty much anyone and everyone; and Guevener has an affair with her husband’s best friend for decades.

I really cannot think of one instance in the novel when a woman appears and doesn’t do something deceitful. Even in one of Lancelot’s quests, a woman tricks him into climbing a tree without his armor so that when he comes down, her husband able to take advantage of his vulnerability in a fight.

As if this isn’t insulting enough, women also seem to be the root of all evil in this book. How biblical of you, Mr. White.

After all, Morgause is responsible for the conception of Mordred, who vows revenge upon his father and ultimately leads to the downfall of Camelot. Guenever’s affair is also largely responsible for this destruction, as she forces Arthur into an impossible situation in which he has to burn his wife at the stake for the sake of the established order and set of principles he’s created and preached (Spoiler alert: Lancelot saves her). Elaine is responsible for taking away Lancelot’s ability to ever perform another miracle and destroying his virtue.

Basically, as I said before, women in this book suck.

This rather blatant misogyny is upsetting in and of itself, but what upsets me more is realizing that this was the standard in novels for a long time. My mother is the person who recommended this book to me. It is one of her favorites, but I don’t believe she’s read it since childhood. When I mentioned the pretty awful female characters, she didn’t remember it fazing her and said, “That’s just the type of book we grew up with.”

When I think about the amazing and empowering female characters that I grew up with, from the Paper Bag Princess to Ella Enchanted to Alanna of Trebond to Talia of Valdemar, it breaks my heart a bit to think my mother didn’t have fictional guides like them. It’s really made me appreciate how times have changed and how lucky I am to live in the time I do.

Yes, the fight for gender equality isn’t completely over (it probably never will be), but at least I didn’t have to grow up with Guenever as my fictional role model.

P.S. The King Pellinore parts of this book are the BEST! He’s definitely one of my new favorite characters.