Sunday, August 30, 2009

Book Review: "Ophelia Joined the Group Maidens Who Don't Float: Classic Lit Signs on to Facebook"

"Rochester suggested a friend for Jane: his secret wife, Bertha. He thinks she may know Bertha too."

Given my interest in classic literature and my love-hate relationship with Facebook, I was immediately drawn to Sarah Schmelling's new book Ophelia Joined the Group Maidens Who Don't Float. The book, whose genesis is in a piece Schmelling did on McSweeney's Internet Tendency, reimagines various classics, such as Hamlet, Little Women, and Death of a Salesman, by juxtaposing their storylines in the world of Facebook updates. The result is an amusing (if somewhat repetitive) look at how many of the staples of Western literature would fit in the Facebook world.

The book's concept of shrinking literature into pithy updates a genuinely funny idea. Whether Hester Prynne is receiving her scarlet letter in the form of flair or Heathcliff (from Wuthering Heights) is adding "the Marrying Someone Out of Pure Spite" application, the mental image of reducing these famous literary moments into mere status updates or one-liners is very humorous. Interspersed with the summaries of these books are fitting ads (Little Women's features an ad for Jo's hair) and other mainstays of the Facebook world. Perhaps the funniest one is the "Are you a REAL MAN?" quiz, as taken by Ernest Hemingway, who scores a mere 40% and spends some time being very defensive about this slight. Schmelling also intersperses postings from various authors and characters into a given book, and so we get a glimpse at Hemingway's contentious relationship with F. Scott Fitzgerald and Scout Finch's comments on Holden Caulfield. Reading the book, it becomes obvious that Schmelling has a strong grasp not only of literature but of the various authors' lives.

Despite Schmelling's witty entries, this book isn't usually "laugh out loud" funny. Also, while the concept is great, the reality does become somewhat repetitious after a while. However, for lovers of literature, this is a novel (no pun intended) way of approaching the classics. It would also make a great book for English teachers, for it provides a fun and alternative way of thinking about tests and assignments. For instance, rather than the usual fill-in-the blanks or multiple choice question, imagine how fun (or at least how different) it would be to give students a page of these updates and asking them to fully explain them. If you love the classics (or you know someone who does), this is certainly a fun read. It might even make you fondly remember your high school and college survey of literature classes.