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Orwell and Shakespeare in a Minute

Second-Hand Books Dept.
By MARIANNA FAYNSHTEYN  |  January 27, 2010

"I thought we were going to be talking about windmills," Jenny Sawyer mutters as she looks into the camera, sandwiched between two pigs.

Not the mud-soaked, non-kosher kind, of course. We're talking the conniving, political-agenda kind of swine, specifically of the Animal Farm variety, fitted into a YouTube–like screen with the wide-eyed, curly-haired, and petite twentysomething Sawyer playing the hoofed political figures, as well as herself.

She's doing it for the kids. As the host (and co-creator) of the Web-based reading guide 60-Second Recap — which is produced in Boston by WGBH — Sawyer is trying to make classic works of literature more accessible for high-school English students.

The novelty doesn't end with pig ears and other props. As the name suggests, there's also a self-imposed time constraint involved. Ah, but there's the rub. The challenge of Sawyer's endeavor is breaking down the likes of Hamlet and Jane Eyre into minute-long segments, all the while covering the basics (plot, characters, theme) and the nuance (symbols, motifs). Perhaps that is why, in reality, an entire recap is actually 10 minutes, with 60 seconds devoted to each of the topics above.

The delightful, digestible bites don't play like a bait-and-switch, however. URL-linked and hyper-conscious of today's IM-lingo, this is not your mother's literary back-up plan (which would be, of course, CliffsNotes). As Sawyer offers: "My problem with [CliffsNotes] is that I don't really feel that it gets kids to engage in a way that says the material is relevant in any way other than getting a good grade in school."

Sawyer tries to (stealthily) inject pertinent news ties and contemporary themes into the material. In the Animal Farm recap, Sawyer connects George W. Bush's fallback on the ever-ominous "Axis of Evil" to Orwell's theme of propagating the threat of distant enemies to maintain governmental influence. Discussing The Great Gatsby, she reiterates the importance of the decadent Jazz Age to the theme of the novel, likening it to the seventh character of the tale. And with Jane Eyre, Sawyer puts a focal point on Bronte's feminist themes, infusing every decision Jane makes with a gender perspective.

To offset those larger issues, Sawyer offers the enthusiasm of a camp counselor — bells, whistles, sing-alongs, and all. "These books aren't just homework assignments," she says. "They're living, breathing expressions of who we are. So if goofy gets people to engage with Sophocles, color me goofy."

Related: 52 ways to leave 2009, Present laughter, Moral surgery, More more >
  Topics: This Just In , Entertainment, George W. Bush, William Shakespeare,  More more >
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