British press Orion is offering abridged versions of such classics as Moby Dick, Anna Karenina, Vanity Fair, and The Mill on the Floss, cutting each nearly in half. According to an article in last week’s New Yorker, they’re being edited by today’s standards with today’s readers in mind. In other words, they’re cutting out the ramblings, the careless asides, the travel logs, the digressions, the stuff that you needed to pad your prose with when there was nothing to do on long winter nights but read—the lengthier the better, something that would last.
I’m thinking in some cases, it might work. As Adam Gopnick the writer of the piece says of Moby Dick, "...the subtraction does not turn good work into hackwork; it turns a hysterical, half-mad masterpiece into a sound, sane book, but lacks its flaccid, anxious self-consciousness: it is all Dick and no Moby."
There are a lot of works that could benefit from a bit of snipping. Take the Bible, for instance. Do we really need all those begats to get the point across? Of course the Catholics would argue that Protestants already abridged the good book by leaving out seven Old Testament treatises. But does the King James really get to the point quicker without them?
It’s a thrilling and scary thought to have masterpieces abridged. On the one hand, they might become more accessible to the masses who thought these old pieces too cumbersome, not only in girth but in depth of prose. But on the other hand, wouldn’t we be cutting out the very soul of these books, their special place from a special time, be it the best of times or the worst of times? Or am I just being sentimental? We’ve all heard when smirking writers submitted works by Jane Austen and Dickens to publishers, changing the name of the author and perhaps a few characters but keeping the prose in tact and getting a rejection for them. But we know that yesterday’s prose belongs in yesterday. You can’t belabor a blade of grass in your novel today, no matter how literary it is. But there is something about tampering with...well. Success, I guess. Though Moby Dick in its time was a dismal failure. Go figure.
If we are lucky enough to produce a classic, what will it look like a hundred years from now? Will Crispin become a novella? In this busy world of ours, how many of us have time to plug in a novel directly to our cerebral cortex? Not many. We offer the pill size version of classics. Simply swallow, and in ten seconds, you will feel the essence of the novel. Mmmm. All that prosey goodness.