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Home > Culture and Society

by th txtng ov my thms, smthng wkd ths wy cms

21 November 2005

It's obvious from a swift glance at the telly that the national attention span deficit is widespread and chronic. Everything that's on before 10pm - hell, everything that's not on BBC Four - is snipped and chopped to suit the darting eyes and fleeting concentration spasms of pesky youngsters. It rather affects the less young too - much as we should be hanging on every word of Kofi Annan's latest 45-minute speech, frankly, we... ooh, a Hobnob.... It's handy for the subjects of press scrutiny that most people can't concentrate for more than a nanosecond on anything; in such flighty times, the most heinous scandal will be overtaken within minutes by something about David Beckham's Dr Who fixation. But regardless, we're all somewhat transfixed by the searing whoosh of info-pellets past our frontal lobes.

Naturally, we're disgusted with ourselves. It's embarrassing to us that we're incapable of keeping our minds on anything of substance - it's as if we're blithely floating away from the sturdy pillars of knowledge that give our lives meaning. So imagine the beatings of breasts when it was reported this week that our great literary classics have been reduced to text-message summaries. A mobile service, backed by an English professor, is planning to provide the ultra-condensed classics to students as revision aids. Professor John Sutherland has been rubbing his hands with glee over the transgressive little scheme. 'You can shrink the whole five-act text of Hamlet into a few thousand characters serving as an aide memoire, enabling you to back-translate into the original's golden syllables,' gushed he. 'Some may argue Dickens is too big a morsel to be swallowed by text, but he started work as a shorthand writer and would, I suspect, have approved of the brevity if nothing else.' The other thing about Dickens, of course, is that while his mighty doorstops look a bit daunting to modern eyes, when they were first published they only emerged a chapter at a time. For the Victorians, it was as good a tease as the flash of a feminine ankle. If you want someone to blame for stunted attention spans, blame them.

So the horror that many will feel at the compacting of Milton's 'Paradise Lost' into 'Devl kikd outa hevn coz jelus of jesus&strts war.pd'off wiv god so corupts man(md by god) wiv apel.devl stays serpnt 4hole life&man ruind. Woe un2mnkind' is understandable, but silly. For a start, it's funny. Txt spk is always funny, in that base, guilty way, like watching a yob in new white trackies slip and fall on his arse onto his mate's kebab. But the point is that it's not actually indicative of any final disintegration of the language. Firstly, the reason English is such a rich and succulent tongue (and such a bugger to learn) is that it's always been accommodating. A bit slutty, in fact, bending over and offering itself to any passing lingo. A newish strand of abbreviation isn't going to affect it, by God.

Secondly, people have been finding ways to squash down indigestible reams of text for years - partly to aid memory, partly because people like Milton were prone to interminable ramble and were clearly in need of a cutthroat editor - and partly because it's a laugh. Look at what some visitors to BBC Online came up with, when the subject of condensing the classics came up a while ago:

'0.5a leag 0.5a leag
0.5a leag onwrd
All in T valy o Dth
Rd T 600
"^ T LB!
"Chrg 4T gns" he sd
In2 T valy o Dth
Rd T 600'

'w8ing 4 go .'


That last one is 'A horse! A horse! My kingdom for a horse!' See? Brilliant. It's almost enough to make you want to go and see The Reduced Shakespeare Company run through all the Bard's collected shit in an hour. Condensing is fun, it's a discipline, and it brings its own insight. In this instance it's only about reminding slightly dim, fad-fixated students what happens at the end of 'Macbeth', and as such is infuriatingly inane; nothing in common with that terrific legend about Ernest Hemingway's six-word novel - 'Baby shoes for sale. Never used.' It's not even a distant cousin's hairdresser's sister of the brilliance of modern writers who've run with the same thing:

John Updike: 'Forgive me!' 'What for?' 'Never mind.'

Tobias Wolff: 'She gave. He took. He forgot.'

Michael Cunningham: 'My nemesis is dead. Now what?'

Norman Mailer: 'Satan - Jehovah - 15 rounds. A draw.'

Fuck it. Reducing the greats to thumb-based twittering is appalling. Round them all up and make them write out 'The Canterbury Tales' 50 times, evenly spaced, in the original olde English baffledegook. Get you hence with your 'RomeoM falls_<3w/_JulietC', you indolent student swine.

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