Shorter Classics

Frank Wilson writes about a publishing company who have abridged some of the great works of the past. He begins:

The last commandment in Elmore Leonard’s 10 Rules of Writing (Morrow, $14.95) declares that an author should “try to leave out the part that readers tend to skip.” The people at Phoenix Press think a number of classic authors were negligent in observing this rule. Anna Karenina, for instance, weighs in at a whopping 800-plus pages. Who can possibly hope to read that and still have time to watch Dancing With the Stars? . . . And there’s the rub, as Hamlet might not say, if a Phoenix editor thought better of it. There is nothing inherently wrong with what Somerset Maugham called “the useful art of skipping.” Maugham himself in fact helped produce a series of abridged classics in 1948 called “Great Novelists and Their Novels.”

How much skipping do you do in your reading? I have a hard time with it, but I have done it. I remember skipping chapter 13 of The Silmarillion.

6 thoughts on “Shorter Classics”

  1. I don’t do much conscious skipping. But I do do some unconscious skipping, which is not a bad thing, since it means you can come back to a best-beloved book over and over, and find something new. With classics, you get so caught up in the characters’ lives, that in a re-reading, every word is like a diamond, because when you happen upon it, you rush to scoop it up,with trembling heart, thinking, ‘Thank God, she–or he–wrote that.’ Long passages in good books have a purpose. They slow down time. The same writer may pick up pace when he wants to show time passing by swiftly. Take Hardy’s ‘Tess’. In my edition, the moment from Angel’s coming to see Tess, after their estrangement, to the moment of her death takes only about twenty pages, twenty pages out of a book of 431 pages. Time drags, when we’re sad, and flies when we’re happy.

  2. It depends on many things for me. I read every page of Anna Karenina, but skipped much in War and Peace.

    I only know what those ‘many things’ are while I’m actually reading something. Presently I could not tell you what it is that determines what I read or what I skip.

    Now you’ve got me thinking…

  3. I find it extremely difficult to skip anything when I’m reading. I might miss something. Afterwards I sometimes wish I had skipped a part, or at least mentally castigate the author for going overboard. The worst offender I’ve run into is Victor Hugo spending 100 pages describing the Battle of Waterloo in Les Miserables because of the effect the battle had on some minor character.

  4. I don’t skip. I do quit though, which is a bad habit I’ve developed in my later years. I might read half a book, then say “This is dreck.”

  5. I don’t think dropping half-read books is a bad habit at all. And speaking of skipping words, I just read the prologue to a Christian fantasy which does interest me, but he spends so many words on unneeded material. I skimmed some of it and wish I’d skimmed more of it. I will probably send that book out into the wild.

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