So goes the rhetoric of our bitter forebears who learn about intangibles like Twitter and are struck by their own metastasized obsolescence. For them, news of a book called Twitterature – the comedic efforts of two 19-year-olds to condense great literature into Tweet form – would constitute further groan-inducing evidence that what the world is coming to is most definitely irreverent hedonism.
However, according to the authors of Twitterature, University of Chicago undergrads Emmet Rensin and Alexander Aciman, their book of playful parodies is meant to celebrate the 80-odd classic texts they satirize, not to churlishly dismiss them as boring, or out-dated or whatever today’s impertinent youth tend to mumble at the back of English Lit classes. Rensin and Aciman have dutifully read and enjoyed them all.
“I don’t think we are trying to recreate literature,” said Aciman in an interview last year, “but we are treating it seriously, in the sense that we have read these books. We love these books. We are making fun of very essential and obvious parts of these books, which means we have obviously read them and investigated them on a serious level. So, besides from being able to poke fun at them and mock them, we are engaging them, even as a joke, on a quasi-intellectual level.”
Reimagining canonical narratives from the perspective of a Twitter-savvy protagonist is, as Aciman articulates, a very contemporary form of engagement with the text – a task most high school teachers of Faulkner, Dickens, Tolstoy, et al, know first-hand is of the utmost difficulty (and importance). Although the young writers’ admitted chief intention is to “make people laugh,” the readers of Twitterature will only be laughing if they understand the basic narrative nuances and contextual significance of each literary work. And isn’t that all English classes ask us to remember about The Great Gatsby anyway?
In pursuit of the punch-line, those upon whom a particular social-media-meets-literature joke falls flat may endeavor to investigate the source material – at best the tome itself and at worst its Wikipedia entry – ultimately prompting broader literary understanding among readers. And with each Twitterature joke falling, as Rensin puts it, “just as heavily on Twitter as it does on literature,” a younger, potentially less erudite and more sarcastic audience can approach the book’s content confident that their Internet Age sense of humor is decidedly invoked (if not completely legitimized). Via Millennial linguistics, the conceptual ball is placed equitably in the court of kids who may not have consumed the entire English canon and resent the didactic dynamics typically implicit in Literati–Average Joe relations.
In his essay “The Social Contract,” über-intellectual Jean Jacques Rousseau proposed a stimulating argument about language that inspires optimism regarding Aciman and Rensin’s polemical chain yanking: he surmised that the phonetic codification of language was of dire importance to the especially young and helpless members of ancient mankind, who needed to express hunger and thirst to their mommies, and so the frontiers of linguistic development were established by the conventions of the least mature. In other words, YOU ARE WELCOME, TOLSTOY, NABOKOV, HEMINGWAY & CO. Without boorish brats wielding an ever-updating argot we’d never have the profoundly meaningful literary compositions that celebrate the power of language. Rensin, in fact, begs this optimism in a parodic Huffington Post piece about the end of Western Civilization caused by his own book:
Upon Twitterature’s North American release witnesses reported widespread rending and wailing as the slim, 208-page Twitterature consumed entire ‘Classics’ sections in one bite, while mobs of young people all hopped up on internet culture and ADD medication threw heavy copies of War and Peace, The Inferno, and Great Expectations into its grand maw. Then as suddenly as the maelstrom began, it ended when the rioters forgot what they were doing and wandered off in search of other entertainment, to tweet about what they might have for lunch, or to update their Facebook pages.
Nevertheless, Aciman and Rensin’s satire seems to be an ambivalent gesture, fence-sitting its way into both a conservative discourse that celebrates the book for “lampooning the routine narcissism of social media [The Chicago Tribune]” as well as the progressive dialectics of New Media advocates, open-minded yuppie educators and generational optimists.