How to get people to read the classics

Just pare them down – to, for instance, George Orwell's '1983' and Kurt Vonnegut's 'Slaughterhouse-Four.'

A few years ago, the National Endowment for the Arts reported a steep decline in literary readers from 1982 to 2002, one representing a loss of 20 million readers overall.

Something tells me the rate hasn't increased since, but who can blame us? What with everything that's going on with Britney and Lindsay, not to mention Madonna and Brad and Angelina and all the pregnancies they've endured personally as well as the ones they've outsourced, who's got time for a 600-page novel?

I've got an idea, which is to make most of those tomes into 300 pagers so we can get the reading done and log back on to the Gawker and TMZ websites to find out what's really going on in the world.

You could start with all those books that have "and" in the title. William Faulkner's "The Sound," D.H. Lawrence's "Sons," Norman Mailer's "The Naked," Dostoevsky's "Crime," and Robert Louis Stevenson's "Dr. Jekyll" would make a great beginning, and if these volumes do well, they could be followed up speedily with "The Fury," "Lovers," "The Dead," "Punishment," and "Mr. Hyde." Ad copy writers would have a field day: " 'The Fury,' the tantrum-filled sequel to the novel that burst on the literary scene like a megaton H-bomb, Faulkner's 'The Sound!' "

You could do the same with James M. Cain's "The Postman Always Rings Once," Dickens's "The Tale of One City," and Virginia Woolf's "About Halfway to the Lighthouse, More or Less."

These new releases might still prove too trying for the average reader, though. Are four Karamazov brothers too many for you? How about just "Dmitri Karamazov"? (He was always my favorite.) I'm certain that Margaret Mitchell's Civil War epic, "Gone With a Light Breeze, Diminishing by Evening" would retain, well, most of its impact.

And who wants to read about all the characters in Robert Penn Warren's best-known novel? I can't even remember their names: "One of the King's Men" is fine by me. "Around the World in Just a Few Days" by Jules Verne wouldn't take up too much of your time, nor would Ray Bradbury's classic cut back to "Fahrenheit 45.1."

OK, now that all the unnecessary verbiage has been hacked out and people are reading again, publishing houses could start to release titles that have been curtailed only slightly. A few contemporary classics come to mind: Joseph Heller's "Catch-21," George Orwell's "1983," and Kurt Vonnegut's "Slaughterhouse-Four." Among older titles, there's always Hawthorne's "The House of the Six Gables." To pull in younger readers who might worry that a book in the hip pocket will make their oversized jeans sag even farther, how about James Joyce's "A Portrait of the Artist as an Eighth Grader"?

The best part is that with books so much shorter now, you can read more. Why, I think I'll tackle a couple this evening, maybe starting with F. Scott Fitzgerald's "The Pretty Darned Good Gatsby."

• David Kirby teaches English at Florida State University.

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