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Posted at 10:00 AM ET, 03/ 5/2010

Wiesel's 'Night,' 'Hamlet' in 60 seconds?

By Valerie Strauss

I just received a pitch for a website that says it is trying to turn young people on to great literature by boiling down the plot of classics to a 60-second video. It's called 60second Recap™.

I could just write, “Enough said,” and leave it at that.

But now I’m wondering why they can’t do it in less than a minute. I can.

Let’s consider the latest video on the site, Elie Wiesel’s classic about the Holocaust “Night.”It is the story of his experience of being dragged off, with his family, to Hitler’s concentration camps.

The press release about the Web site reads:

Host Jenny Sawyer didn’t take the challenge lightly: "The Holocaust throws a shadow over the 20th century, but it’s begun to recede into history," she says. "The task is to help today’s teens connect with contemporary accounts of the Holocaust so that its lessons remain fresh. I can’t think of a better place to start than ’Night.’ "

There is a 60-second video of Sawyer explaining the plot. There is another 60-second video of her talking about the characters (“I have some good news and some bad news,” she says. “The good news is that there aren’t a lot of charcters for you to remember in this story. The bad news is the same. There aren’t a lot of characters to remember.”)

There are other related 60-second videos, each showing Sawyer talking about a part of "Night," most of them with simple drawings as backdrops.

I can boil down Wiesel’s story and make it relevant to young people who are learning about human frailty and mortality in five, no, two seconds: “Everybody dies.”

For Shakespeare’s tragedies? “Everybody dies, first in spirit, then in body.”

With promos like these, who wouldn’t want to pick up those books?

Here’s what the Web site says as a pre-emptive strike against nasty people like me:

“Smirk if you must. Consider this yet another mile-marker on civilization’s road to perdition. But here’s the fact: You won’t get non-readers to read by forcing them to read more. You’ll get them to read by opening their eyes to the marvels awaiting them between the covers of that homework assignment.

“With 60second Recap™, teens finally have an alternative to the boring, text-based study guides that have burdened them for generations. And -- who knows? -- maybe that’s just what they’ll need to begin a love affair with literature, one that will last a lifetime.”

Smirk I must.

Consider this another mile-maker on civilization’s road to perdition, I must.

I must also point out that the fact that is cited as a fact isn’t a fact. Non-readers CAN learn to enjoy reading if they read more. In fact, there’s pretty much no other way to get non-readers to enjoy reading except to have them read things they enjoy.

As for those boring, text-based study guides, well, I know boring, text-based study guides, and you, Mr. 60-second videos, are no boring-text-based study guides. Boring, text-based study guides actually impart information and analysis.

The idea that young people need a short video to entice them to read a great work of art is ugly. The ability to enjoy and stick with a great narrative has not been bred out of the younger generation, even if it is accustomed to instant gratification in the post-Sesame Street era.

Getting anyone to pick up a book because of a 60-second video, now that’s a real trick

If you must see these videos, click here. Let me know --in comments or at theanswersheet@washpost.com--how many drive you to read the book. Feel free to tell me I'm wrong.

-0-

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By Valerie Strauss  | March 5, 2010; 10:00 AM ET
Categories:  Literature  | Tags:  literature, videos  
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Comments

It's difficult to be succinct on this topic, but I'll give it a shot;

1. That person, 'Jenny' is the biggest
turn-off - hard to believe she thinks
she's important enough to lure people
into reading many of the world's
greatest classics. I had to stop
watching it after about 8 seconds, so
I never made to Diane Sawyer's
comments.

2. Having said the above, great drama -
along the lines of a fabulous movie
trailer could to do a lot to inspire
non-readers - 30-second spots. That's
because many people who do not like
reading are more visually oriented,
have learning disabilities, are ADD or
all of the above.

3. A family case I witnessed in terms of
the drama capacity to inspire reading:
My father, at the age of about 68, was
not a fan of reading; he had gotten an
MBA and was intelligent, but reading
was painful - he was probably had a
reading disability that was not recog-
nized in his day. After watcing the
PBS series of "I, Caligula", he was so
mesmirized by the history, that he not
only went out and bought all of Robert
Graves books, but continued to read
avidly until his old age.

I don't think we should have to need video
lures to entice people into reading, but as
our current society, particularly for young
people, is going at breakneck speed and curtailing attention spans,we might have to
consider them. - JUST NOT LIKE THE ONE THAT
"JENNY" IS DOING!

Posted by: PLMichaelsArtist-at-Large | March 5, 2010 2:11 PM | Report abuse

Yikes - my apologies to Diane Sawyer....I meant to write Jenny Sawyer.

Posted by: PLMichaelsArtist-at-Large | March 5, 2010 3:07 PM | Report abuse

I have a totally different view. First of all, I don't know how PLMichaelsArtist-at-Large thinks Jenny Sawyer thinks she's "important" -- especially since he says he stopped watching after eight seconds. How can he have an opinion that's based on anything but his own prejudices?

Second of all. Jenny Sawyer's stuff is amazing. She's like a literary tour guide. Why is that a bad thing?

I could NOT get through Great Expectations AT ALL until I saw her recaps of that book. Maybe that makes me stupid or something, but 60second Recap makes it seem like fun instead of homework. I fell in love with Dickens thanks to Jenny's stuff.

Posted by: flybyday | March 5, 2010 7:23 PM | Report abuse

I teach 11th grade English and literature here in Montgomery County. The Recap has been a remarkable resource. I've seen it motivate students to tackle "difficult" texts - like The Scarlet Letter and, yes, Night - with enthusiasm. This is key. Not only does the Recap offer incisiveness (and originality -- I've been quite impressed by Ms. Sawyer's distinctive acuity), it conveys the host's passion for the material in a way words-on-paper study guides simply cannot.

Another thing about the Recap: It's not a cheat sheet. Cliff Notes and such will offer students a tempting shortcut, a way to avoid actually reading the book. 60 Recap, on the other hand, cheers the students on. Jenny's enthusiasm is infectious and her unpretentiousness helps to make the material less intimidating than it might otherwise be.

I agree with you, "Non-readers CAN learn to enjoy reading if they read more." But I disagree with your assertion that "there’s pretty much no other way to get non-readers to enjoy reading except to have them read things they enjoy." Jenny Sawyer and her Recap have encouraged a number of my students to actually enjoy reading books that they otherwise would have approached only under duress.

If this is, as you say, "another mile-marker on civilization's road to perdition," I can't wait to go to hell.

Posted by: proflogic | March 5, 2010 8:38 PM | Report abuse

I happen to know Jenny Sawyer personally.  And, let me tell ya, Jenny's livin' the life.  

She gets up, reads thousands of pages from books the rest of us forgot after we left school.  Spends hundreds of hours thinking and researching and writing and rewriting.  Then more untold hours shaping and reshaping her Recap scripts into something that, she hopes, will inspire kids to tackle the great works of literature for themselves.  Then 14 hour days in a studio, on her feet, where she shoots 26 Recaps, back-to-back, because there really isn't money to accommodate a less punishing (e.g., less cost-effective) schedule.   

Then she goes home to get ripped apart by anonymous posters and obscure education bloggers.

Anyone leading a life like that deserves no less.  Well done, Valerie!

Posted by: peterosterlund | March 5, 2010 9:42 PM | Report abuse

Dear peterosterlund:

I'd like to gentle and clarify my comments of the prior post, but first, you must know that to enter the world of public art is to open yourself to criticism.

I think Jenny's idea is great, and am glad you wrote in to describe the incredible prep work she is doing; obviously she is getting somewhere in light of the other comments posted. The main turn-off for me was that Jenny had to infuse her own images in all of the openings - I am very imagistic,and had trouble getting past seeing Jenny's image everywhere to read further.....a simple correction would be for her to pull back a bit, and perhaps to pose some of the young people she wants to reach to suggest the characters. Think it would be ultimately more enticing.

Posted by: PLMichaelsArtist-at-Large | March 6, 2010 11:48 AM | Report abuse

I tried to read "Nicholas and Alexandra" and, even though I love history, I got bogged down in all the Russian names and couldn't keep the events straight. After I saw the movie, I was able to go back and read the book and pick up on Massie's analysis. So videos sometimes do help. And I am old enough to have grown up reading the "Classics Illustrated" comics--in some cases I had no desire to read the book, in some cases I read the book later and enjoyed it, and in some cases--"Silas Marner," for example--I thought the comic was pretty dull and the book was even duller because there was more of it. My pet theory is that Eppie Marner grew up and married Tiny Tim; if ever two people deserved each other, it's those two! But since I visualize action poorly--when I hear the word "horse" I see the H O R S E in my mind instead of the animal--the comics helped me over that hump.

I also remember most of the students in my advanced placement class carried Cliff Notes to the thicker novels. Our teacher liked lots of quotations to back up our statements, and we got tired of leafing through a thick book looking for the episode we had in mind, so we bought the Cliff's Notes and used them to locate which chapter the event we were citing was in. (And let's face it--you need the list of characters to keep the relationships straight in "Wuthering Heights"!)

Posted by: sideswiththekids | March 6, 2010 3:45 PM | Report abuse

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