Tiny Texts and Scholarly Snootiness: Should Literary Summaries be Respected?

by Flora Dempsey

Dempsey - Tiny Texts and Scholary Snootiness Image
Original photo by Flora Dempsey

Being ‘well-read’ – whatever this means – is a quality many aspire to and few achieve. The epithet indicates that you’re intellectual, informed and, importantly, interesting. A YouGov survey reveals that one in three people have purchased a book ‘solely to look intelligent.’

It’s hardly shocking news. Who hasn’t, at one time in their life, sat in uncomfortable silence while a highbrow conversation was underway in which they couldn’t partake? Who hasn’t then hastened away to consult Google? Very often, the cause of this embarrassment is a book you haven’t read but know you should have.

Lists of books that everyone should read – from Anna Karenina to Zuleika Dobson – typically recommend 100 books you simply must read to be considered intellectual mean that becoming well-read is a daunting prospect. Not a problem. Running Press claim they can provide all you need to know about the Brontës, alongside other literary icons, ‘in one sitting.’

One self-proclaimed ‘Tiny Tome’, whittles Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre down to some twenty-six-summarising pages, each measuring less than eight centimetres. The problem though? These books are designed to be attractive, even – perish the thought – ‘cute’. There are many things one can say about Jane Eyre- ‘cute’ is unlikely to be one. How can this be equal to the profundity of a cherished classic, considered a cornerstone of the canon? But what actually is the problem with this? Though it might seem cute, surely we cannot insist that something so minute bears any real consequence to Brontë’s work. These books are not a threat, they are merely gifts.

The miniature editions, placed beside tills in bookshops as though in an attempt by booksellers to connote their status as desirable objects, not books, have attracted criticism. Purchaser reviews on Amazon give an insight into opinion on these books. One excoriating review suggests, ‘This little book should be entitled “A Dumbed-Down Summary of the Novels by the Brontë Sisters.” …the summaries in the present volume are worthless.’ Interestingly, the reviewer doesn’t necessarily find commodification of literature of this kind a problem. No, the objection is a familiar one around intellectual inferiority and ‘dumbing down’.

But why does so much alienating snobbery surround reading, when it is such a frequent complaint that not enough people are doing it? Michelle Chahine appeals to us, ‘Don’t be a book snob’. Chahine tackles the superior attitudes and assumed authority that some readers take, which can put off others from reading altogether. She writes, ‘to be all high-and-mighty over a good quality best-seller just because it is not a dark piece of “literature” does not make you more well-read or smarter.’

If the issue with tiny texts is that self-identifying intellectuals find them lacking, perhaps it is they who should reconsider their attitude. Running Press books provide an accessible space in which new, or apprehensive, readers can gain encouraging introductions to intimidating texts. After all, who would go to the cinema to watch a film, without first having seen the trailer?

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