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  • Writer's pictureDeborah Yaffe

The twelve-word Austen

This weekend, New York City Janeites will gather to celebrate The Birthday with a presentation by Jack Wang, half of the duo behind the adorable Cozy Classics board books.

The Cozy Classics compress famous novels into twelve one- or two-syllable words accompanying charming and surprisingly expressive needle-felted illustrations by Wang’s twin brother, Holman.

Needless to say, the stories are radically abridged. The Cozy Classics Pride and Prejudice leaves out Lydia and Wickham, and the Emma has no room for Jane Fairfax. (Presumably, however, the Cozy Classics War and Peace, boiled down to a mere three characters, is an even greater shock for Tolstoy fans.)

Still, a surprisingly large amount of plot survives, at least in embryo. Pride and Prejudice gives us Darcy and Bingley (“friends”), Jane and Elizabeth (“sisters”), Darcy’s insult at the Assembly ball (“dance” and “mean”), Elizabeth’s trip to Netherfield to nurse her ailing sister (“sick” and “muddy”), Darcy’s first proposal and explanatory letter (“yes?” “no!” “write” and “read”) and the happy denouement (“walk” and “marry.”) The economical Emma somehow manages to squeeze in Harriet’s refusal of Robert Martin, Emma’s efforts to pair her with Mr. Elton, Mr. Elton’s proposal, Frank’s rescue of Harriet, and the Box Hill sequence, complete with insult, scolding and repentance.

The Wangs envision their little books as vehicles for building young children’s vocabulary via narrative. And they suggest that parents use the books as jumping-off points for their own versions of the stories, sprinkling in selected quotations from the original. “There’s no right or wrong way to read Cozy Classics,” they promise.

It’s a generous and accessible mode of presenting Austen’s work, but also a tad peculiar, when you think about it. In this formulation, Austen’s novels, the products of one individual’s compelling imaginative vision, become almost like folk tales -- told and retold, reshaped and refashioned, according to the interests and needs of whoever is doing the telling and the listening. Pride and Prejudice or “Little Red Riding Hood”? Whatever. It’s all story.

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