By Susan Soric
Photo by Jason Smith

One day in spring 2009, Alex Aciman and Emmett Rensin were hanging out in their Max Palvesky West dorm room, bantering about the increasingly popular social networking tool known as Twitter.

The first years’ chat turned into a verbal game, as they took turns condensing the classics on their UChicago reading lists into 140-character “tweets,” the truncated messages that Twitter users post on the Internet. For Aciman, a Comparative Literature student, and Rensin, a double major in English and Philosophy, the contest was to see who could be the most hilariously erudite in converting a protagonist’s tale into short tweets.

“We just sat in a room and yelled at each other until something funny happened,” Rensin recalls.

“It was almost like a tennis match,“ says Aciman. “We opened a book and said, ‘OK. How does this story go? He’s angry. He’s sitting on a bench. How do we make that funny?’” The jokes began to fly and plot points gave birth to absurdity. “It was a constant back-and-forth. One would start a line and the other would finish it.”

The result is Twitterature, a digest of some of the world’s greatest books, each presented in 20 or fewer tweets. In Twitterature, published and released last month by Penguin, the authors take the essence of the messaging medium and create literary nuggets that are irreverent, satirical and sometimes profane, yet contain genuine affection for the fiction they lampoon. The mini-portrayals target a wide range of writers, from Chaucer and Coleridge to Pushkin and Pynchon.

The individual and the absurd

By viewing classics through a hyper-modern lens, Aciman and Rensin say they’ve found deeper insights into Twitter’s strange appeal—and new absurdity in the books they love.

A sample tweet from Samuel Beckett’s Waiting For Godot:

@ShaggyGodotJoke— Still waiting. Trying not to think of this awful, frustrating situational metaphor we’ve found ourselves in.

And from The Epic of Gilgamesh:

@UrukRockCity—Great. That’s it. I’m leaving Uruk. My best friend in the world is dead, all because the Gods couldn’t handle our great bromance.

And from Franz Kafka’s The Metamorphosis:

@bugged-out—I seem to have transformed into a large bug. Has this ever happened to any of you? No solution on Web MD.

‘Without the Enlightenment, there would be no Twitter’

“Twitterature,” says Rensin, “is made up of an indisputable class of great literature according to the canons that are carved out in high-minded universities—or in the hearts of 14-year-old girls.” But why reduce so many great works to micro-fiction? Rensin provides some explanation for their motivation.

“From the dawn of the 18th century on, there’s been an increased emphasis on the individual in society,” Rensin says. “You have someone like Emile Durkheim talking about the cult of individuality as the last outlet for the collective consciousness and other thinkers shifting political philosophy to hold the stake of the individual in civil society above all else. Clearly they’re talking about something like Twitter, where, as a logical culmination of this sort of thinking, every individual gets to broadcast their every asinine thought to every other individual for free.”

Without the Enlightenment there would be no Twitter, says Rensin. “I think both Twitter and literature are the byproducts of very long intellectual traditions, which obviously stem from the insatiable human urge to create and to record both the literally true and the fictionally constructed.”

Aciman says much of their book is intended to mock the “narcissistic” format of Twitter. “The tweet is ridiculous,“ he says. “It’s the ultimate arrogance to say what I’m doing right now is worth everybody else’s time.”

A literary roast that includes Dante’s Inferno

Born into a literary world of truth-telling and fiction, the two novice authors are the sons of successful writers. Aciman is the son of Andre Aciman, an American novelist, memoirist, essayist, and a leading scholar of Marcel Proust; Rensin’s father is noted journalist and writer David Rensin.

Before Twitterature, the two students had pooled their creative thoughts on another project, says Aciman. “Emmett and I had written an op-ed for the Chicago Maroon (“Think we’ve got it bad? Princeton agrees: A response to The Daily Princetonian’s 2000 assertion of misery at the U of C), and we found out we worked really well together. People liked it, and so we were eager to work together again,” he says.

They shared their preliminary work on Twitterature with a literary agent who thought it was funny. Not long after when about half the book was written, they secured Penguin as their publisher. The two spun out Twitterature at record pace that summer until the manuscript was done.

Although Twitterature may poke fun at the obsession with the social networks that technology has spawned, the book’s authors possess a deep respect for literature. “It’s mostly a work of love,” says Aciman. “We love these authors so much that it’s more like a literary roast at the Friar’s Club.

“You’ll never be able to say you understand Dante’s Inferno after reading our book, but there are people who will never read Proust or Joyce, sadly,” says Aciman, “and so, maybe our book will give them a small fraction of it. At least they’re infinitely better off with that small fraction than if they’d never heard of them.”

Originally published on January 4, 2010.