Saturday, February 13, 2010


I hate abridged books.  To clarify, I am not talking about reference books, where an abridgement allows me to purchase a version of the Oxford English Dictionary that won't break my book shelf or my piggy bank.  Nor am I referring to excerpts found in anthologies.  Excerpts are fine.  They are meant to give a reader a taste of the whole.  Abridged books, however, masquerade as being the real thing, while stripping away the lifeblood of the original creations.

Certain formats, of course, call for abridgments, such as audio books or movies adapted from books.  But to abridge books themselves, when one can take the story in as small or as large chunks as one wishes, spread out over a period of days, weeks, months, and even years?  Blasphemy!  Why would you buy the abridged version of Anna Karenina when you can buy the complete version, one in which the pacing isn't hacked to pieces by an "editor's" whims?  For the same reason, I hate listening to cut versions of operas, but there, at least, the artists were present when the cuts were introduced, and nowadays, the only cut operas are ones in which 1.) the singer would die if he or she had to sing the complete part live, or 2.) the recordings are from a time when cuts were considered acceptable (or recording technology or historical considerations prevented a complete recording from being made).  Plus, with recordings, at least, one would gladly take a cut La Traviata in order to hear Maria Callas sing Violetta, or a cut version of Tristan und Isolde to hear Lauritz Melchior sing the role of Tristan, since neither singer recorded those roles in complete, uncut versions of their respective operas.  And, in fact, one could supplement those versions with newer, complete recorded versions of those operas, with different singers and better sound quality.

With abridged books, on the other hand, they continue to be published, due to a wrong-headed idea that butchered versions of the classics makes them more "accessible" to a wider audience.  In addition, you gain nothing that you wouldn't gain in an unabridged book.  In many cases, you gain far less.  Case in point: in high school, my class read an abridged version of Les Miserables that ran less than 400 pages long.  The uncut version runs at about 1200 pages, meaning that roughly 800 pages were cut from the book.  So, the "necessary" parts of Les Mis run to half the size of the "unnecessary parts?"  In addition, when I read the uncut version some years back, I discovered that the cut portions of the book were some of the best parts of the story.  For example, the description of the battle at Waterloo, the student revolts, a description of the Parisian sewers, and much of the detail that makes this such an enthralling, entrancing book.  Sure, there are weak stretches, but they are often followed by strong stretches (for example, the section before the student revolts drags a bit, but then we have the revolts and the building of the barricades), all missed by someone who only reads the abridged version, and would wonder afterwards why people consider Les Miserables to be such a great book.

Is it the length that scares people off?  These are the same people who are hooked on Lost and 24.  Watching those shows year after year takes up much more time that reading War and Peace would.  "Dumbing down the classics" does nothing to spread their appeal to people who are scared away by the more complete, better versions of these tales, and--in my opinion--continues to fuel this illogical idea that the classics need to be fiddled with in order for "modern" audiences to appreciate them.  Isn't that a slap in the face to the editors and writers who originally worked on these books, and to the intelligence of modern audiences?  Are we saying that they are incompetent, or didn't do a good job when they originally published the books, or that we are incompetent, and are unable to read classic works in their entirety?  This is one area in which I can understand an author's desire to extend copyright (to read my opinion on current copyright laws, click here).  Who wants their work butchered by someone who thinks they can make it better by removing large chunks of the narrative, destroying the pacing, and cutting details that add to the mood of the tale?

As readers, we can do three things to stop this practice: 1.) not buy abridged books, 2.) find out which stores sell abridged books, and write letters (or email) to management telling them to stop, and 3.) find out which publishers support this practice, and tell them to stop.  I understand that long books cost more money to publish that short books, but if publishers in the 1800s and earlier weren't afraid to publish these long works of fiction uncut, than neither should we.  Nor should we be afraid to read them as the authors intended us to.


  1. Pretty damn right!
    I've read enough classics abridged when I was a kid that now my propensity for them, especially for some rason Dickens, now is rather diluted. I generally tend to go for the less 'conventional' classics, like the Russians and twentieth century writers.

  2. Well, where there is a rule, there will be an exception==Lamb's Tales from Shakespeare have done service in familiarising the bard to children from an early age, apart from being fine literature in their own right.

  3. Technically, yes, he is abridging Shakespeare, but you can buy a complete and unabridged version of his abridged versions of Shakespeare on Amazon :-) Plus, Charles Lamb isn't trying to pass off the book as Shakespeare's (the book is called Tales of Shakespeare, after all, and Charles and Mary Lamb are listed as the authors, not William Shakespeare), whereas an abridged version of The Hunchback of Notre Dame tries to pass itself off as being Victor Hugo's work, just shorter, which it's not. Also, Lamb was a writer (and a damn good one at that), not an editor or professor, as many of the "abridgers" tend to be.
    Finally, to make a work more accessible is one thing; to completely gut its contents is another. Perhaps if more writers took Lamb's approach (and passed the work off under their own name, as opposed to hiding behind the original author's), I wouldn't have as much of a problem with abridged books. After all, isn't Lamb's purpose to explain the plays of Shakespeare in easy-to-understand language, so that when one encounters the plays for real, one will know what's going on? His book, therefore, is acting as a supplement, or as a gateway, to the real thing, not as a replacement.

  4. I could not agree more!! Abridged books irk me so much... I remember this one book I was trying to find to read and our library only had one copy of it: an abridged version.
    And it wasn't even a hard read!! I mean, it was an L. M. Montgomery for pete's sake! *shakes head*
    But the story ends happily, I now own it in it's complete form. :)

  5. Abridged... Les Miserables? Blasphemy! That book almost makes me want to learn French (but not really ;) ) and people talk of abridgment? *shudder*


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