A is for abridged books and why I don't like them

Author: Anne

Date Published: Apr 8th 2017, 4:55pm

This is a reprint of a blog I first published a couple of years ago. I pretty well stands by my views although maybe I should have emphasised the fact that I don't think that just because a book is long it is somehow worthy !


The Good Fairy that runs this site posted a link to a news item some time ago about the proposal to abridge Sir Walter Scott’s novels because they are too long for today’s students to read. I have every sympathy for them having been required to read “Dombey and Son” by Charles Dickens as part of a literature course – I am not sure now how I ever got to the end and I certainly wouldn’t/couldn’t do it again. I read “Middlemarch” by George Elliot for another course and found it as interesting as reading treacle and as long as Dickens’ epic. I also once read “Moby Dick” by Herman Melville which I remember reading to the end in the hope that Captain Ahab would finally meet his whale – that’s another book I shall not be reading again. In my defence I have read “A Suitable Boy” by Vikram Seth which is as long as any of these and which I really enjoyed as well as a host of fantasy epics which all run to at least 500 pages.

However much I found reading some of these long books to be tedious and time consuming I feel very strongly that they shouldn’t be abridged. I actually don’t believe that anyone should abridge or edit a book after it has been finalised by the author and it has been published (irrespective of the temptation).

A book is a work of art – some better than others, of course. You wouldn’t think about repainting bits of the Mona Lisa or removing some of the disciples in the Last Supper to make it easier to take in. If you want to paint something that is like a work or art but isn’t the same you start from scratch and make it your own. If you want to rewrite a classic then you should do so but publish it under your own name as a different thing from the original – I call these tribute novels and there are a wealth of them in the form of prequels, sequels, retellings from different points of view, contemporary updatings or much the same tale but with the addition of zombies.

To abridge a book and present it as still the work of the original writer doesn’t seem right to me, especially when the author isn’t around to defend their “masterpiece”. I do accept that many classic authors might have revised books themselves or abridged them had they been around when fashions for long books faded, but they didn’t and I don’t think that we can do it for them, even if years of literary criticism have identified the weakest parts that could be erased.

The question then arises about what we do to show students the wealth of writing in English Literature without them having to read so many long books. I would say firstly that anyone studying the subject is going to have to wade through a few of these epics because they are important landmarks and if they aren’t prepared to do it then maybe they should reconsider their area of study. I would argue also that maybe there are some shorter books that can also be found that equally prove the point that needs to be made, or even that the use of extracts might be helpful. For younger students, still at school, I question most sincerely the need to read long, out of date books which have little relevance – but that’s another blog for the future maybe !

And when we think that modern readers cannot manage long novels can I please draw your attention to “Game of Thrones” and other popular fantasy epics (JR Rowling’s Harry Potter books get quite substantial by the end of the series). If you can read everything that George RR Martin has written about his world and keep it all straight in your head then Dickens should be a doddle !