While living and working in Edinburgh in 2008 I set out to write one million words in 366 days... but only managed 800,737.

Monday, February 25, 2008

Jekyll and Hyde, almost.

Okay, I finally have my hands on my copy of the Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde. But before the actual story/novella I had to read the prelims: a section entitled ‘About the Author’ and ‘Jekyll and Hyde: an Appreciation’ by Ian Rankin. I think it’s a hangover from my days as an English Lit student, but I like to read the non-fiction first to get me thinking before diving into the book for real.

I felt like I’d read Rankin’s ‘appreciation’ before, having watched the BBC documentary about the roots of Rebus (which discussed Edinburgh’s two-faced nature, Deacon Brodie and Jekyll and Hyde), visiting the Rebus at Twenty exhibition at the National Library and reading snippets of One Book One Edinburgh all in the last six months. But that’s my fault.

The ‘About the Author’ section, well, it got me thinking, but not about Stevenson or his book, but about who wrote these six paragraphs, who approved their inclusion in the edition and what they were all thinking!?!

It’s clearly intended to be an unthreatening intro, perhaps even a school-age friendly intro, which does mesh with the ulterior motive of One Book One Edinburgh: to get people reading.


Actually there are two Buts…

But the first: I seem to remember reading somewhere here that this year’s book was not aimed at school children since Jekyll and Hyde is pretty dark. So I don’t see why the ‘About the Author’ section should be written in a Dick and Jane style.

But the second: such an intro might very well put readers off. If I hadn’t picked up a book for three years, but decided to give the book a go coz it free and/or people at work were reading too, I would read this section and feel insulted. Just because people are lapsed readers, does not mean they are necessarily bad readers.

I’ve looked around online and I’ve found entire texts of the novella and Rankin’s introduction, but it looks like I’m going to have to type out this jolly ‘About the Author’ thing so non-Edinburgians (is that what they’re called?) can see what I’m on about.

Robert Louis Stevenson was born in Edinburgh in 1850. His family wanted him to become an engineer so he could join the family firm. Stevenson didn’t want this. He dreamed of romance, brave deeds, adventures and new lands. However, he was a sensible boy, so he studied law at Edinburgh University. He got his degree, but he didn’t want to be a lawyer. He wanted to write books.

Stevens suffered all his life from a lung disease. He travelled a lot. He hoped to find a place with good weather that would help him get better.

He was very often ill, but he wrote as much as he could. His adventure nove, Treasure Island (1883), was a bestseller. Then he wrote a dark thriller about the difference between good and evil, Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde (1886). This book showed that he was a great writer.

In 1886, he also wrote Kidnapped, which was a huge success, and is still one of his most popular books. He wrote Catriona, a follow-up to Kidnapped, in 1893 and The Master of Ballantrae in 1889. Stevenson also wrote poetry. His best-selling poetry book was A Child’s Garden of Verses (1885).

In 1886, Stevenson went to the South Pacific, with his American wife, Fanny Osbourne, and his family. He lived in Samoa, where the weather helped him feel better. He died in 1894. The Samoan chiefs called him their “story-teller”. They gave him a great honour by burying him on top of a famous mountain.

Stevenson wrote some of the best and most loved stories in the English Language. He is still popular with readers today.

Having typed this out (275 words; I don’t know if I should add them to my tally or not), my opinion of this bio is even lower than when I started writing this blog entry. It’s not just poorly targeted, it’s poorly written. Like the dual conjunctions and ‘sensible boy’ abstraction in, “However, he was a sensible boy, so he studied law at Edinburgh University.”

Then there’s the repetition in the second and third paragraphs, the “He… He… He…”, drone, the curious comma usage, and the stupid (yeah, I’m a little riled up) generalisations (“This book showed he was a great writer,” “He is still popular with readers today”).

The Samoa section bugs me the most. Forget the fact Stevenson gave himself his Samoan name, why do we only get the English translation in quotation marks? It sucks all the flavour out of the title (which is Tusitala by the way). I can just see a sceptical fifteen year old reading this and thinking, “Big deal.”

And what was the name of the mountain? “Honour” and “famous” tell us the same thing. Doesn’t this sound much better: “They gave him a great honour by burying him on top of Mount Vaea”? So much more flavour (though I would probably rewrite the first half of the sentence too). Would “Mount Vaea” scare off a non-reader or a young reader? If it does, they wouldn’t make it past the first sentence of the actual story, which is full of uncommon words in 00’s English (“countenance”, “scanty”) and scary semi-colons (three of them).

I don’t want to pick a fight with anyone trying to spread the love of literature, but surely 275 words could have done more to illuminate this “great writer” and maybe even arouse a little wonder themselves? Sounds like a challenge… I wonder if I can work the facebook to start the revolution.

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