Cut it out — or don’t?

Last week I received a message from one of the regular posters to the Reading Room: In a recent thread, someone said, “I remember in the summer between junior and senior year in college, I read an abbreviated form of War and Peace, then wondering what had been left out. That reminded me that I have an aversion to “selected by” or “abridged by” or even some “edited by” editions; I always wonder what has been left out, since I’ve found that the choices of the “selectors” are often at odds with mine. I want the whole schmear, even with the longeurs, so that I can judge the work (be it novel, collection, corpus, or whatever) as a whole. In short, I don’t want “Selections from Ibn Battutah”, I want the complete Gibb translation. Perhaps this might be a topic for a future thread: what do others think of such selections or abridgements?

Back to me (MD) now: When I was young I would occasionally read those Reader’s Digest Condensed Books, the kind that usually contained four novels in one fat volume. I remember enjoying Alan LeMay’s The Searchers and a Mr. Moto thriller by John P. Marquand in just these editions. But I, too, wondered how much of the original text had been cut out and how much of the author’s voice had lost its distinctiveness and idiosyncrasy. Since then, I’ve tended to avoid any mucking around with the text.

But I’m not a purist in this. I do love the Naxos Audiobooks, many of which are abridged to make long books more approachable. My favorite The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, read by Philip Madoc, appears on 12 CDs, giving something like a half of the Gibbon original. But Madoc’s reading is so glorious, so succulent that to miss it because he uses an abridged text would be an immense loss. (Madoc’s death this past March was an even greater loss—I and many others had looked forward to more of his audiobook work. As it is, I’ll have to look around for his versions of Ellis Peter’s Brother Cadfael mysteries, which I’ve never heard.) Another great Naxos reader, Neville Jason, reads an abridgment of Proust’s Remembrance of Things Past (something like 35 CDS) and uses the old unrevised Scott-Moncrieff version to boot. But his reading is exemplary and his Baron Charlus a particular triumph.

Do other members of the Reading Room have stories about misadventures with various editions of classic works? How do you feel about abridgements and condensations? Do they have their place? Recently, some older texts — e.g. the ghost stories of M.R. James — have been reparagraphed. Is something lost by attempting to make the prose look more inviting? In years past, insensitive portraits of ethnic minorities in children’s classics have been retouched or removed. How do you feel about this kind of bowderlization? Abridgement is a trickier issue that it may at first appear. Please share your thoughts.

— Michael Dirda

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