How To Read Beowulf In Just 600 Emails A Day

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If you’re like me, you probably never actually read Great Expectations. Or Pride & Prejudice. Or The Grapes of Wrath or Ulysses or Billy Budd or, well, just about every other classic work of literature that you claimed to have read in high school. Oh sure, you always meant to pick them up eventually, but somehow you just never got around to it.

All of that may finally change thanks to DailyLit (www.dailylit.com), a new online service that’s found a clever way to get people reading again, one chapter at a time. As their website explains, “You spend hours each day reading email but don’t find the time to read books. DailyLit brings books right into your inbox in convenient small messages that take less than 5 minutes to read.”

The site recommends starting slow, with only a chapter or two per week. But in my enthusiasm, I couldn’t settle for such an unambitious reading schedule. At that rate, it’d take years to get through everything on my to-read list. Instead, I decided to find out just how many books I could cram into a 7-day period.

MONDAY

I start with a novel that’s always intimidated me, James Joyce’s Portrait of an Artist as a Young Man. Much to my surprise, it’s remarkably easy to finish the first chapter. I suspect it’s because Joyce’s funky punctuation isn’t all that different from what I usually read in an email. I immediately order the next four chapters, and because I’m feeling cocky, I also subscribe to bloated epics like Anna Karenina, Don Quixote, and Nicholas Nickleby. I manage to read almost a third of each volume before realizing that it’s 3am. So far, this thing is addictive!

TUESDAY

There’s an undeniable thrill to signing into your email account and discovering that you have 137 unread messages. But reading four classic novels simultaneously can also be disorienting. I find myself wondering, “Wait a minute, how the hell did Sancho end up on an island again? And why can’t Seriozha talk to Anna anymore? Did I miss something?” It’s starting to annoy me that these authors can’t just get to the point already. Don’t they understand email shorthand? Would it kill them to replace a few of those rambling paragraphs with a smiley face emoticon, or pepper their sentences with an occasional “LOL”?

WEDNESDAY

Upon learning that Jane Eyre has been sent to my spam folder, I’m intrigued enough to comb through every line, looking for the dirty bits. Other than a teacher who enjoys spanking orphans, I can’t find anything even remotely filthy. I begin subscribing to random books, just to find out which ones will be flagged by my spam filter. Madame Bovary passes the censor, but curiously, not Moby Dick. (Does Yahoo know something about the whale metaphor that I don’t?) And inexplicably, only chapter 183 of Victor Hugo’s Les Miserables gets blocked. I can find just one line that might pass for pornographic: “He gave three francs a month to the old principal tenant to come and sweep his hole.”

THURSDAY

I’ve learned how to check email from my cell phone, and despite the ridiculously small print and frustrating pace (I can only receive 2-3 words at a time), I enjoy the convenience of reading on the go. I manage to finish a good chunk of “A Rose for Emily” while grocery shopping, and I plow through the Snowden-confessing-to-Yossarian bit from Catch-22 during an unusually long red light. I also find it oddly satisfying to interrupt a conversation by reaching for my cellphone and telling my perplexed friend, “I just got a text from Jonathan Swift. Hold on, this’ll only take a minute.”

FRIDAY

I think I’ve figured out the trick. You have to stick to novels that are written in the first person, so it seems more like a real conversation. The only downside, of course, is that it’s easy to forget that the author is dead, and sometimes you feel compelled to write back. I became disoriented after reading 89 emails of Leaves of Grass, and replied to Walt Whitman with a lengthy missive, reminding him that all this isolation crap can’t possibly be healthy. He wrote back with some nonsense about a spotted hawk “complaining of my gab and my loitering.” Oh Walt, you ol’ so-and-so!

SATURDAY

I have 351 emails waiting in my inbox that I have no intention of reading. And for some reason, DailyLit has sent me duplicate copies of Dostoyevsky’s The Idiot, which I don’t even remember requesting. Am I crazy or are they mocking me? I eventually get around to Aristotle’s Poetics, mostly because it’s the shortest book I can find (just 19 emails). Even so, I skim through the Tragedy chapters, and the Epic Verse stuff is way too dry. Whatever, I got the gist of it.

SUNDAY

I cancel my DailyLit account. I just can’t take any more of this pressure. But I haven’t given up on literature entirely. I’ve subscribed to a “joke-of-the-day” online service, and they just emailed me a hilarious gag about a Catholic, a Baptist, and a Mormon. And it only took three seconds to read! Sure, it’s no Canterbury Tales, but I’ll get around to reading that one of these days.

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A 30-Year-Old Man’s Frustrating Conversation With His 5-Year-Old Self

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FIVE: Who are you?

THIRTY: Holy crap, it’s me! I mean, you’re me! How old am I? Or you — how old are you?

FIVE: (Holds up five fingers)

THIRTY: Five? Geez, I overshot this a little. You…I mean I — was supposed to be fifteen. Damn time machine. Anyway, listen kid, I don’t have much time, so just pay attention and remember everything I say, okay? This is easily the most important thing that will ever happen to you. Do you understand?

FIVE: Are you a stranger?

THIRTY: No, I’m not a stranger, I’m your…Uncle Gary. Now listen to your Uncle Gary, Gary. Eleven years from now, your friend Thomas will want you to race him with your father’s classic Corvette. Don’t do it. Oh, and 12 years from now, don’t start crying when Natalie Johnson breaks up with you. If you do, she’ll tell the whole damn school so just take it like a man. Got it?

FIVE: I’m not supposed to talk to strangers.

THIRTY: I am not a stranger, Gary, I’m your Uncle. Your Uncle Gary. You can talk to family, can’t you?

FIVE: Okay.

THIRTY: Good, Gary, now…wait, that was too easy. Ah Lord — just don’t talk to anyone else who claims to be your uncle, okay? Now, I see you’ve got a crayon and some construction paper there, so why don’t you write some of this down? Write exactly what I tell you, all right? I can’t write it for you because I’m not supposed to be here.

FIVE: All right.

THIRTY: Excellent, Gary. I was a good boy, wasn’t I? Here we go. Age 16 — do not race corvette. Do you have that? Good. Age 17 — do not cry when N breaks heart. Good. Age 18 — do not study chemistry.

FIVE: Why?

THIRTY: You’re going to be a bit confused by that one, Gary, but you’ll just have to trust me. My — your — senior year chemistry class is going to be very difficult, and all of the long nights you spend doing homework for that horrible witch Mrs. Appleby will prevent you from drinking underage and having pre-marital sex. You will be quite a catch, Gary — no matter what anyone says –- and I’m quite certain the only reason you wouldn’t be dating a gorgeous cheerleader is because you’ll be stuck at home studying for that useless chemistry course. So don’t. Besides, in the most beautiful act of karma you will ever see, Mrs. Appleby will contract a rare disease and miss the last three months of the school year, forcing her to give everyone in the class an A. This will make you believe in God, Gary.

FIVE: Okay.

THIRTY: Great, so Age 18 — do not study chemistry. Let’s just see how you’re doing. Can you show me what you’ve written?

FIVE: (Holds up a drawing of two stick figures holding hands)

THIRTY: So you haven’t written anything. Just amazing, Gary, really amazing. Do you want to be a loser for the rest of your life? I’m trying to help you here, but you…hold on a second. I recognize that drawing! My mother put it in one of my childhood scrapbooks! So all of this time, the taller stick figure was actually me from the future. Huh, go figure. Hold the phone — if I can remember that drawing, then I was already visited by my 30-year-old self 25 years ago when I was five, and this has already happened. And if that’s true, then nothing I say will change anything, because technically I’ve already said it. Dammit! I could have gotten filthy rich on internet stocks. Oh well, if it doesn’t matter what I say anyway…Hey Gary! There’s no such thing as Santa Claus, or the Easter Bunny! There’s no point to life, really, because one day you’re just going to die like everyone else!

FIVE: (starts crying)

THIRTY: Wait, I think I will remember that part. Dammit.

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The Perils of Dating the Daughter of Chris Hansen of Dateline NBC’s To Catch a Predator

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AMANDA HANSEN: Hi, Dylan! You’re early. Let me just run upstairs real quick and grab a hair scrunchy. I went swimming so my hair’s sooo frizzy today. Be right back!

DYLAN: No problem.

CHRIS HANSEN [suddenly emerging from behind a curtained doorway]: Oh, I think we have a problem all right.

DYLAN: Whoa, Mr. Hansen. You scared me —

CHRIS HANSEN: Hi there. Why don’t you just have a seat on that stool.

DYLAN: W-what’s going on, Mr. Hansen?

CHRIS HANSEN: Let me ask you that question. What exactly are you doing here?

DYLAN: Well, like I told you yesterday, since I got my driver’s license, my dad’s been letting me borrow the car on Fridays, so I figured me and Amanda would go out for some pizza, and maybe go bowling later —

CHRIS HANSEN: Pizza and bowling, huh? Just a little innocent fun?

DYLAN: Uh, sure.

CHRIS HANSEN: I might believe that. Except that’s not what it says on your chat log.

[Produces a sheaf of printouts, which he flips through with grim, paternal menace.]

It says here, “Got the car tonight so maybe we can grab a pizza and maybe go bowling after if that’s cool with you.” Your screen name is Dylan3867, is it not?

DYLAN: Yeah…I just instant-messaged her. We go through this every time, Mr. Hansen. I don’t see what the big deal —

CHRIS HANSEN: And you drove — what? — for twenty minutes to meet a fifteen-year-old girl for — what do you say here in your chat? — “I’d love to get a sausage special, but it’s lame, I can’t have meat for a month because of the new braces.” “Sausage special”? Is that the sort of thing you say to a fifteen-year-old girl? Then you go on to brag here how “awesome” your “sausage special” is —

DYLAN: It’s a kind of pizza, Mr. Hansen —

CHRIS HANSEN: And what about this “meat”? Did you bring any of this “meat” with you? And I don’t even think I want to know what you mean by “new braces.”

DYLAN: Mr. Hansen, I don’t mean any disrespect, but I think you’ve become a little obsessed ever since your show —

CHRIS HANSEN: She’s fifteen. What do you think would have happened if I wasn’t here?

DYLAN: I-I don’t know. We’d hang out, whatever —

CHRIS HANSEN: Just you, her and your “sausage special,” I take it? Maybe those “hot meat braces” you have in your car?

DYLAN: What are you talking abou —

CHRIS HANSEN: If that is, in fact, a car in the driveway. How can I be sure that’s not a giant sex toy filled with wine coolers and edible condoms?

DYLAN: But you’ve seen my dad’s car before —

CHRIS HANSEN: You brought your dad? It’s rare that I say this, Dylan, but I am truly appalled. How old did you say you were?

DYLAN: Sixteen. You know that, Mr. Hansen. But I don’t see why it’s even —

CHRIS HANSEN: Sixteen? You’re old enough to be this girl’s father! Maybe even her grandfather. Don’t you see anything wrong with that? What in the world possesses a sixteen-year-old man to want to meet a fifteen-year-old girl?

DYLAN: Come on, Mr. Hansen. I really like Amanda, but when you do this I start to wonder —

CHRIS HANSEN: Listen to me. There’s something you need to know. [Several cameramen emerge from various hiding places.]

DYLAN: Oh, God, Mr. Hansen, you do this every time I come over —

CHRIS HANSEN: I’m Chris Hansen with Dateline NBC, and we’re doing a story on —

AMANDA HANSEN [descending stairs]: Sorry about the wait! My cats are always playing with my hair scrunchies so I can never find — Dad! Can you cut it out already? God, that is so embarrassing!

CHRIS HANSEN: Sorry, hon. Sorry. Go have fun tonight. Remember, I want you back by ten.

[Turning to the red-faced Dylan, who is now quivering with barely suppressed rage]

Well, Dylan, if you have nothing more to say for yourself, then you’re free to go. [Dylan and Amanda leave.]

[To the cameramen as he peers out the living-room window]

If I’m not mistaken, that’s Mr. Kovitz coming up the driveway to return the hedge clippers he borrowed — and no doubt consummate the lurid Internet tryst he’s arranged with my wife.

Back to your places, everyone! Let’s do this.

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