Home > About reading, Personal Posts > What do you think of abridged versions of classics?

What do you think of abridged versions of classics?

Today, I went on a book buying tour and I came back with something I’d like to discuss with fellow book lovers.

The first bookshop I visited was for business reasons, I was looking for a textbook for work. I tried to buy online but it’s not easy to make up your mind when you know what you’re looking for but you don’t know the title or the author of the book. Amazon is particularly poor on that matter; you don’t even have access to the table of contents of the book contrary to the French site Decitre. Sometimes, you just need to browse through a book to know if it meets your needs. So I felt guilty for going to a brick-and-mortar store when I needed to see the books and deprive them of the easy money from the books I buy online.

The second bookshop I visited was for my children. I wanted to buy books for them for the holidays. (btw, that’s it, we have Jeune Adulte collections. Did we have to import the YA tag?) I was a bit lost in there since I don’t know much about children literature, unfortunately. Oh heaven! There was an employee, available, knowledgeable in children literature and who had actually read the books she recommended to me. My request was quite simple (so I thought): I wanted contemporary books, well-written, for children and not fantasy or SF – must be the genes, my daughter doesn’t really enjoy fantasy. I eventually managed to find something great for her but we were in trouble when it came to my son. He was a problem for the bookshop clerk: he’s only 8 and obviously, he’s a boy. She told me: “It’s difficult to find a contemporary book whose hero is a boy”. You see, young readers are mostly girls, so publishers choose books with heroines. Interesting turn of events, isn’t it? Well, apparently, if you’re a boy and you don’t want to read fantasy or SF, you’re in trouble.

The third shop was only for me, THE literature bookshop. I spent ages looking at the shelves, reading the recommendations left on the display tables. Kosztolányi and Szerb were there with lots of other writers I didn’t know before starting this blog. I discussed with passionate employees and bought several books. I should always buy my books there but I don’t have enough time for this. The only thing that puzzled me is that Beckett is in the French literature section; it took me a while to think about that option and look for him there.

I came home with a question nagging at me. In the children literature section, I noticed there were a lot of abridged versions of classics, like Le Rouge et le noir, Le Comte de Monte Cristo, Pride and Prejudice for example. On the cover of the “Stendhal”, it is clearly written it’s an abridged version, in small letters, near the logo of the publisher, but not on the “Austen”. I can’t help thinking that this is very convenient for publishers: famous stories, in the public domain; in other words, easy money with good return on investment. It is also convenient for lazy readers who are old enough to read the original and won’t make the effort to read a more challenging style. And doesn’t it encourage students to cheat and take the short-cut of the abridged version?

I am adamant: no abridged versions of classics for my children. What’s the point? If they’re too young to read the original, leave it for later. If it’s only to know the story, just watch a film version of the book. I’m under the impression that once you’ve read an abridged version, you end up thinking you’ve read the book and you won’t come back to the original text. When you’ve only seen the movie, there’s no confusion, you know you haven’t read the book and may eventually read it.

What do you think? Am I too extreme?

  1. July 28, 2012 at 10:44 pm

    No, I’m with you. No abridged versions. I don’t think you’re extreme at all. Readers’ Digest put out a whole series of abridged versions and I think they’re an atrocity.

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    • July 28, 2012 at 10:49 pm

      Thanks. I really think watching the film is the best alternative.

      Like

      • July 28, 2012 at 11:59 pm

        Exactly. If if it’s abridged because the book is supposedly too difficult, then pick another book. There have been a few times I’ve bought books on tapes that have been abridged (without realising) and I’ve been really annoyed.

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        • July 29, 2012 at 9:35 pm

          It happened to me once too when I rented Alabama Song by Gilles Leroy. (very nice book, btw, one you’d like) I was annoyed too.
          Nobody would have the idea to cut a part of Guernica just because it’s a big painting.

          Like

  2. Brian Joseph
    July 29, 2012 at 3:37 am

    I am totally with you Emma. I fear that this tendency to abridge these works is a symptom of a society that is very much inclined to water and dumb down the substantial and complex. As you alluded to in your commentary, I fear that it is not just children reading these butchered texts.

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    • July 29, 2012 at 9:42 pm

      The books I saw are aimed at teenagers. I’ve never seen abridged versions of books in the adult section.
      But you’re right, we want to do everything quickly and with little effort.

      I checked Orgueil et préjugés and Le rouge et le noir on several online bookstores: only Amazon mentions that this edition is an abridged version of the text.
      I’m sorry but the reason why Pride and Prejudice is not a stupid romantic comedy comes from the style, the wit and the insight of the society of that time. Take that off and you have a basic love story. I haven’t checked, I don’t know how it is translated but there is a risk that the translation simplifies the language too.
      Two sites mentioned a reading age of 12 for Orgueil & Préjugés and Le Rouge et le Noir. I don’t think you can understand Julien Sorel and Mathilde de la Mole or Mme de Rênal at 12.

      Like

  3. July 29, 2012 at 6:07 am

    I completely agree with you. If a child is not old enough to read the original then they are probably not ready for the narrative either. “Compact Editions” make me feel very sad. Great books are worth reading in their original form. I’m sorry you had so much difficulty finding suitable books for your son. I have no idea what gets translated to French, but there are some good books in English.

    Like

    • July 29, 2012 at 9:45 pm

      I’m a bit lost in children literature, I’m not really interested in reading some myself. I need to find a French book blogger who posts about that.

      Like

  4. July 29, 2012 at 1:22 pm

    Not a good idea at all 😦

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    • July 30, 2012 at 11:36 pm

      I don’t like ersatz literature, if I can’t have the real thing, I’d rather not have it at all.

      Like

  5. July 29, 2012 at 4:44 pm

    When I moved from a French-based school to an English one, the Longman Abridged Classics were helpful to me to understand English, and I remember the stories were quite different from the ones we were reading in French at the age of 10-11, much more interesting, intriguing and rich, and they got me hooked on literature reading.
    This collection had a small glossary at the end of each book, a brief biography of the author and some clarification for historic events, if they happen to be mentioned in the book. I consumed plenty of the those titles, and started moving gradually to more “difficult” books until I was ready to read the original titles.
    I’m not sure if the abridged books you stumbled upon are similar to the ones I am referring to, but if they are, then I think it’s worth it to give them a try.

    Like

    • July 29, 2012 at 9:52 pm

      Your situation is enterily different since you weren’t reading in your native language. Thanks for sharing, it’s an interesting experience.
      I don’t know how old you are but I think that nowadays there are more children books available than when I was a child. There’s a way to find suitable and interesting books without touching a classic. Plus sometimes you just need to pick the right novel in a famous writer’s work. For example, I bought The Red Pony by Steinbeck, I found a Le Clézio once.

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      • July 30, 2012 at 8:57 am

        I’m 31 and yes, you’re right, neither English nor French is my native language, maybe that’s why I am in support of the abridged books. Still, as you write in another comment, why would one trim or cut or take a part out of an artist’s work – an atrocious idea to be sure – you have me reconsider my position 🙂

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        • July 30, 2012 at 11:45 pm

          It’s just that you can read something else. There are enough contemporary writers whose vocabulary is easier to understand. (Encore que, en venant du français, l’anglais du 19ème siècle n’est pas toujours le plus difficile à comprendre)
          Plus there are bilingual editions.

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  6. July 29, 2012 at 4:46 pm

    I’m not sure about this to be honest. When I was a kid someone gave me a book with the Shakespeare plays told like stories and I loved it so much that later I read the plays because of that and it was far more accessible than if I hadn’t had the book. The stories very well told and in some sense it was like a new creation, a retelling, so maybe that’s entirely different.
    Does abridged mean they cut parts? Then, I suppose I wouldn’t like the idea.

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    • July 29, 2012 at 9:58 pm

      Thanks Caroline. I think some are a retelling and some are just abridged, ie they cut parts. I didn’t look closely enough in the store as it wasn’t an option for me and when I try to find the info on online bookstores, I realised you can’t have it (even on the web site of the publisher, Le Livre de Poche Jeunesse) Worse, sometimes it’s not even mentioned it’s abridged.
      I understand your point and I’m glad it helped you for your future reading of Shakespeare. Still, I can’t swallow that we dare to cut some parts from an artist’s work. Not when you can read something else. https://bookaroundthecorner.wordpress.com/wp-admin/edit-comments.php#comments-form

      Like

  7. July 29, 2012 at 6:37 pm

    Funny you mention Le Comte de Monte Cristo, because that’s one book I first read in an abridged version as a child (I could not get it out of my head – what a great book!), and then returned to the full version as an adult, still appreciative, but baffled a bit by my recollection of sheer drama of it – and of the pace. Conclusion: I wouldn’t give up my memory of how exciting it was to read that book as a kid, and while I’d be disinclined to give a kid an abridged version, I would not consider it a catastrophe. I might consider it a catastrophe, however, if the kid didn’t keep reading literature long enough to realize, as an adult, that reading the book unabridged would be a worthwhile and different experience.

    So, for future reference, what is “THE” literature bookshop where you browsed endlessly?

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    • July 29, 2012 at 10:17 pm

      Thanks Scott, I wrote this entry to have that kind of feedback. I have to admit that Le Comte de Monte Cristo is a perfect book for an abridged version. It’s more about adventure than about psychological insight. (unlike Le Rouge et le Noir) but still it bothers me. For my husband –who doesn’t read– buying abridged versions for the kids isn’t a problem. That’s also why I questioned my opinion and wanted to hear your thoughts about that. I don’t like the idea of cutting a part of an artist’s work. What do you choose to cut? Do they cut parts of Wagner’s music to make it more audible to the public? Don’t you think that if someone cut a part of, say, Le radeau de la Méduse, people would protest?

      Here is the bookshop I’m talking about. It’s like City Lights for you. No Marc Levi, Guillaume Musso, Suzanne Collins or books about compulsive shoppers. I have nothing against their readers, I’m just glad they use the space for something else. They have a partnership with the theatre and provide them with the texts of the plays. This is how I could post about Le Suicidé or Le garçon du dernier rang just after attending the play.
      I bought Classé sans suite by Patrik Ourednik. He’s a Czech writer and the bookaholics who sell books in this shop raved about it. Now I’m looking forward to reading it.

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      • July 30, 2012 at 5:35 am

        Emma – I was thinking more about this throughout the day (not thinking, no – musing), and came back to your well-stated conclusion, that Monte Cristo (uh, I’m using the abridged title) is probably the worst example as it may indeed be the perfect book for an abridged version, if there has to be one. I’m horror-struck, though, by what an abridged version of Le Rouge et le Noir might look like. Here’s a variation on your idea: take Henri Rousseau’s painting The Sleeping Gypsy and “abridge” the lion out of it, or better yet, just leave its tail, hanging in the air. Now ask your publisher if abridging books is a good idea. The gypsy may sleep better (or not, what with a disembodied lion’s tail hanging in the air), but will you?

        Thanks for the librairie link. I’m determined to visit that city on my next trip over, and will certainly be exploring that bookstore.

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        • July 30, 2012 at 11:43 pm

          Thanks for your comment, I like your comparison with Rousseau, the painter. I think that perhaps it doesn’t sound as bad to cut a book as to cut a painting because the book is printed. You can reverse what you’ve done by printing it entirely again and you can’t reconstruct a painting once it’s damaged. Thus the book becomes less “sacred” or doesn’t look like a work of art as evidently as a sculpture or a painting.

          Feel free to email me and ask questions about the city when you decide to visit.

          Like

  8. July 29, 2012 at 8:45 pm

    As a youngster I was given a copy of Jane Eyre which I didn’t know was abridged. Nor would I have understood the meaning of ‘abridgement.’ Studying Jane Eyre a few years later at school I was very puzzled to find ‘new’ bits! It was obviously vastly superior to my copy and I was annoyed to have wasted my time with an inferior product.

    In short, Emma, I think you are absolutely right.

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    • July 29, 2012 at 10:18 pm

      Thanks Sarah. I’m like you, I just want to read the real one or pick another book.

      Like

  9. Alex in Leeds
    July 29, 2012 at 11:29 pm

    Ugh, I hate abridged books. I can’t see the point of them at all unless they are forced to have ABRIDGED or INSPIRED BY THE NOVEL in big letters on the cover so no one expects them to be the original work but shorter. You always lose something in abridging along with the word count – nuance, style, side-plots etc.

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    • July 30, 2012 at 11:55 pm

      Well, I guess you can safely cut the battle parts in War and Peace but you’d wonder why the book is entitled that way 🙂
      You always lose something that way and mostly you lose what’s often difficult to put into movies and make film versions of books disappointing. Like you say, the nuance, the style, the wit, the apparently trivial details or characters that give the book its flavour.

      Like

  10. July 30, 2012 at 9:01 am

    It might be interesting for you to know that English Literature students at the Lebanese University, the only public university in Lebanon, are not banned or sanctioned or reprimanded for reading the Spark Notes version of the books they are supposed to read during their 3-year study! In fact, as long as the main themes of the books are covered in the Spark Notes version, can get away with it – I find this to be absolutely shocking!

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    • July 30, 2012 at 11:46 pm

      Is it for literature students or for all students?
      I find it shocking too, like a licence to cheat.

      Like

  11. July 31, 2012 at 3:15 am

    Yes it’s for literature students only; they have to read many books in a short period of time. I know some who have graduated without having read one single “full” book in their 3 years. It’s unbelievable…

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    • August 1, 2012 at 10:45 pm

      Why bother taking literature classes, then?

      Like

  12. August 3, 2012 at 9:29 pm

    We used to be given these at school. I refused to read them, and just read the full version instead.

    I don’t see a reason for them. Retellings sure, that’s an exercise in creativity, but abridging is like cutting the end off a painting so you can fit it next to the fireplace. It’s an act of artistic vandalism.

    As I said in my Notre-Dame de Paris review – read the architecture chapters!

    Like

    • August 3, 2012 at 10:12 pm

      If I’d been caught by a teacher reading an abridged version of a book we had to read for class, I would have been punished. I’m going to ask if it’s still like that.
      It’s a big difference of philosophy, don’t you think? I wonder if it comes from a deeper difference between anglo-saxon culture (always more practical and turned towards efficiency) and French culture (that thing you nailed when you reviewed In The Absence of Men)

      Otherwise, I agree with you entirely. (As often, I have to notice)

      Nobody reacted to a comment I made earlier: do you think it’s not considered as much as vandalism for a book because it’s printed and it can be made whole again. I don’t know how to express what I mean in English. For a painting or a sculpture, the object is the art or the art is in the object. Touching or watching the object is touching or watching the artist’s work. Thus “hurting” the object is damaning the artist’s work forever. For literature, you touch a book (and now an ebook) The thing you touch isn’t the artist’s work, it’s a mean between you and the artist’s work, which is immaterial. Only words. Re-printable (does that word exist?) You cut off pages and you don’t feel like vandalising an artist’s work because what you touch isn’t “sacred” and you know that cutting off the pages can be undone by reprinting the whole book properly.

      Like

      • August 3, 2012 at 10:16 pm

        I think in my school it was more because we weren’t streamed by ability and many students had poor literacy (not generally the kids from immigrant families, mostly it was home grown kids who had problems). Many too just plain had no interest in reading, so getting them to read an abridged version was a challenge.

        I would still argue we should simply have done different books.

        On your last paragraph, I think you may have a point. The book as physical object is a commodity, the text remains out there in the world. I still think it’s vandalism though, just impermanent vandalism.

        Like

        • August 3, 2012 at 10:24 pm

          I think we would have had different books. Daniel Pennac relates in Comme Un Roman how he got his students interested in literature by reading books to them. He would read aloud in class. I would have loved to have him as a teacher. In collège (from 11 to 15), I looked like a UFO with my interest in literature. There was only one boy who shared this with me.

          I still think it’s vandalism too. But for some, it’s less obvious than for other works of art.

          Like

          • August 6, 2012 at 11:10 pm

            Ok, I’ve asked. It turns out teachers sometimes recommend abridged versions when the pupils aren’t able to read the original. School programs are made by Parisian ministers who don’t always realise their decisions are difficult to implement. And since teachers can’t forget about the official program… How counterproductive. Not sure this serves literature.

            Like

  13. August 8, 2012 at 4:10 pm

    There’s an interesting article about How To Talk About Books You haven’t Read here, on Karlo Mikhail’s blog

    Like

  14. kwill
    December 3, 2012 at 3:01 am

    I’m all for reading the original whenever possible, however I teach middle school and high school literature and MANY of today’s students do not have the reading skills for original classic literature. Some authors, particularly those of the 1800s, write prose which to today’s average readers is as incomprehensible as a foreign language.
    You are obviously a good reader and your children probably will be, too. But what about children who struggle with reading issues? One of my best students – a senior girl I had last year – had recently taught herself to read — as a junior! She craved classic stories — she loved Pride and Prejudice on video (the long version) and it was her goal to read Jane Eyre. But the poor girl couldn’t get past the first page. Should we refuse to let her read the story simply because she can’t handle the original text.
    Reader’s Digest WAS atrocious for a good reader — but it still had a market and I miss it. What does a 16-year old read who can’t read text harder than fourth grade level? Are they condemned to reading Encyclopedia Brown as seniors? Shouldn’t high school students be exposed to classic stories from the Illiad, Ulysses, the Bible, Shakespeare, etc. even if they can’t read the original text?
    When I was in 6th grade, I read a revised, abridged version of Tom Sawyer and loved it. When I read the original as an adult, I found it tedious and sappy. Sorry, Mark Twain, but you needed a modern editor. When it comes down to it, quite that applies to quite a few of the Victorian authors.

    Like

    • December 3, 2012 at 10:15 pm

      Hello,
      Thank you for visiting and your thought-provoking comment.
      I hear your point about students not being able to read Jane Austen in the original but I’m still against abridged versions: I don’t see how reading an abridged version is better than watching the excellent BBC film version of the book.
      There are enough good contemporary books to read and learn enough vocabulary to read Austen in the original later. And for the stories, there are excellent film versions.

      Believe me, I’m not looking at this from my ivory tower, I do apply this to myself too. Not for literature obviously but for music. I know nothing about classical music and yet I’ve been taking piano lessons for almost four years now. I’ve tried listening to CDs, reading children books that aim at making children discovering classical music, nothing works for me. So I guess, I understand a bit how your student feels.
      I’m currently studying a very simplified version of Sarabande by Haendel. I play it because it’s in the textbook and it’s there for teaching reasons, but honestly, I can’t see the draw. I’m not playing the original score and I’d rather play the real score of a pop song than sabotage a great work by playing an abridged version full of whole notes and devoid of any complicated concord. It’s tasteless.

      Like

  15. Ankesh Kumar
    May 20, 2014 at 9:23 am

    I chanced on your page doing a google search to know whether Collins Classics are abridged since I wish to make certain they aren’t so as I prefer unabridged versions. Unfortunately, it turned out that Collins Classics are (sometimes) abridged unlike Penguin, Wordsworth and Oxford editions. At the risk of sounding sanctimonious, I opine that albeit unabridged classics are generally superior to its abridged versions in originality and exhaustiveness of content, sometimes there is a genuine need to bowdlerize a piece of work such as those of Shakespeare in view of the target reader group, especially, children and people that abhor lewdness. Expurgation of such works makes it readable to the aforementioned section of readers as well!

    Yes, I completely concur that sanctity of literature must not be spoiled purely for commercial gains.

    Like

    • May 20, 2014 at 10:36 pm

      Thanks for dropping by and commenting.

      I understand your concern about making the text more accessible to every kind of public. However, I think film versions of books are a good compromise as long as they keep the story intact. See Romeo and Juliet in a film can be a way to go through the text.
      Otherwise, they are other wonderful original books that can be read by students.

      Like

  16. Hakim Zainul
    May 25, 2014 at 3:51 pm

    Hi Emma. Do you have any knowledge of whether Collins Classics book editions are abridged or not? Fyi, I’m really sensitive about this matter and I hate it if I find myself reading an abridged classic. And would u suggest me some unabridged editions like maybe penguin, wordsworth etc?

    Like

    • May 25, 2014 at 9:35 pm

      Hi,

      To be honest, I didn’t know how to answer your question because I’m French, not British or American. But I got help from British readers and they both recommend Penguin and Oxford World Classics. You need to check it’s a “complete and unabridged” edition.
      I hope it helps.

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