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Nit-Twits

Emma Kaufman

foerAlexander Aciman and Emmett Rensin
Twitterature
Penguin, 2009
160 Pages
£6.99
ISBN 978-0141047713

Fresh from the dorm rooms of two University of Chicago freshmen, Twitterature retells each of “the world’s greatest books” in 140 characters flat. The pitch is a surefire publicity machine, and the book is well worth its hype for the sheer amusement of watching the Guardian scramble to be hip. “The classics are so last century”, that two-century-old publication declares.

Beneath the fuss surrounding its release, Twitterature delivers some truly joyful moments. Kafka’s The Metamorphosis, for instance, morphs from 96 pages to one line: “I curse the day I inexplicably transformed into a gigantic six-legged metaphor!” Paradise Lost undergoes an even more radical edit, from 368 pages to “OH MY GOD I’M IN HELL”. Dante’s divine trilogy reads, “I’m being attacked by three theoretical beasts! I don’t think I’m in Italy anymore!” And of course, there’s Marcel Proust: “Wow. Time flies when you’re writing books”.

The best of the blurbs are tongue-in-cheek (on Macbeth: THERE’S NOTHING ON YOUR HANDS, YOU’VE WASHED THEM 100 TIMES ALREADY!!!); the worst, most of which involve depictions of women, are an uncomfortable reminder that these authors are 19-year-old boys. (Lysistrata is, as one might expect, a veritable minefield, with lines ranging from “All you want is beer and a blow job” to “We can have a sit-in. Or a lock-down. Like a sitting pussy lock-down.”) Gendered trends in the canon persist even in tweet, it appears.

While the gems are less frequent than one might like, Twitterature is quite clearly the product of two very smart, very well-read minds. And this is the real problem with the book. While Aciman and Rensin half-heartedly frame Twitterature as a “new and revolutionary way of understanding” literature, their book is from start to finish a distinctly inside joke, penned for and by those schooled in Defoe and Dostoevsky. There’s no problem with this on face; Twitterature, like its namesake, has a particular audience in mind. Instead, the real and lingering concern is that Penguin—and the rest of the publishing—is a beat and a half behind.

As the book unfolds, one begins to sense the parody turning back on its producers. It’s disconcerting. Pieces like Twitterature are fun to read for now, but they smack of an industry’s lagging effort to keep pace with the technology that will either propel or displace the demand for classic books.

Emma Kaufman is reading for an MPhil in Criminology at New College, Oxford. She is the editor-in-chief of the Oxonian Review.