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Saturday, 28 July 2012

Hands Off the Semi-Colon and Nobody Gets Hurt

Whenever my birthday rolls around, my dad usually sends me a book or a CD, via Amazon's UK site. Sometimes he'll ask me what I want, but other times he'll surprise me, based on other books we've both enjoyed. One year he got me a translation of the Vinland Sagas, talking about the Viking expeditions to the New World, based on the fact that these sagas were part of the heritage JRR Tolkien drew on in creating Middle-Earth.

So this year he sent over a collection of MR James' ghost stories, probably because we both spent a lot of time reading HP Lovecraft back when I was in high school. That, and he also wanted me to read a particular story, The Mezzotint, which is regarded as one of James' best.

The book was pretty enjoyable in terms of providing chills, and it kind of made me want to become an antiquary (which is what nearly all of James' main characters are). James also used some interesting narrative devices to draw readers into his stories, which was fun to read. Another thing I appreciated was how The Mezzotint inspired an episode of the new Twilight Zone that scared the crap out of me in middle school - James' story centers on a picture that changes whenever the main characters look at it, depicting a ghostly incursion, and the Twilight Zone episode had something similar.

Interestingly, MR James' stories are still pretty easy to find - since reading the book from my dad, I've seen a few other collections in various bookstores, or different versions of the collection I have. But the one that really caught my eye was one that "updates" James' prose. Specifically, the preface to this new edition says something about changing the punctuation to make it easier for modern readers to follow.

I find this kind of thing objectionable, on several levels. For one thing, MR James' prose, as it stands, is not so impenetrable as to require deciphering. We're talking about fiction that was written around one hundred years ago - unlike Shakespeare or Chaucer, his English is the same as ours, and doesn't require a glossary at the back to explain unfamiliar words.

Can you imagine if someone tried to clean up James Joyce's Ulysses for modern readers, or (for a slightly more widely read example) Jane Austen? Book nerds and literature professors would storm the publishing houses with torches and pitchforks.

The other reason is that not everything needs to be easy and disposable. I'll admit that once or twice while reading James' stories, I had to go back and read more closely, because if my mind wandered I might get lost in the sub-clauses. But while this new edition's publishers might say that's why they're doing it, I'll argue that it just proves the importance of reading James' work closely.

Even though most people would scoff at the idea, you actually can sit down with a book for a few hours and really concentrate on what you're reading; some books even reward that kind of reading, by revealing all kinds of interesting subtext. And even if there's no subtext, really paying attention to the words on the page helps you visualize what's happening in the story. James' prose can be subtle, and you need to be visualizing the action to get a proper sense of how scary his stories are.

And more to the point, the way an author uses punctuation is part of their style, dammit. Finnegan's Wake might be full of run-on sentences and craziness, but that's not because James Joyce's copyeditor phoned it in that day; rejigging MR James' prose for modern readers is like remastering the Beatles... sure, someone went and did it, but most fans would rather listen to the original recordings.

I could go on, but then I'd have to change the name of this blog to the Crotchety-Old-Bastard-Lab. I think my point has been made - leave the commas where they are, step away from the semi-colon, and we can all go home to our families tonight. Nobody needs to die, right?