The academic David Purdie’s plan to cut the classic Sir Walter Scott yarn Ivanhoe from 189,000 words to a mere 80,000 was met with criticism at the weekend, despite Purdie, the head of the Sir Walter Scott club, having sound motives.
“Not many people read Scott these days because he’s long, wordy and difficult for the modern ear and attention span,” said Purdie. Rival academics huffed, noting Ivanhoe has sold 100,000 copies in the last decade. Hmm, how many of those were not to schools and colleges? Then came the Charles Dickens row.
“All 11-year-olds should read Dickens,” the schools minister said. “But they are not being taught with the attention span necessary” retorted Dickens’ biographer Claire Tomalin. Hmm, again. Why force feed our children all the same authors we endured? The books were written in a different age, one with fewer forms of entertainment. Even so, Dickens, with his mass appeal, was consumed in instalments. Why waste precious reading time on authors whose language and style do not survive the passage of time and taste?
If Scott struggles to be heard, is that a bad thing? Leading authors of their day pass into obscurity: think Kipling or George du Maurier. Dickens won’t because his famous characters still speak to us. Don’t tell me children lack the attention span. They multi-task far more than we did, being able to balance Facebook, PS3, texting, sports, schoolwork, TV, and yes, the books they buy in millions for fun - like the three Harry Potter novels of the seven that are longer than Ivanhoe, with The Order of the Phoenix coming in at 257.000 words alone.
As ever, you just have to capture their imagination.