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Sooooo. If you've been reading all the way to the bottom of my last couple of reviews, you may have noticed that I'm chipping away at one of the mightiest of the classics: Les Misérables. My book club selected it for this month in anticipation of the forthcoming movie, and I definitely wouldn't have picked it up without that external motivation. Here's why: it is LONG.
Yeah, yeah, yeah, people who love to read are supposed to laugh in the face of all those finely-printed pages, especially when it's a beloved classic we're talking about. It's wonderful to be able to soak in an author's style and really live with the characters and be in their world for a month or so. And generally I do love being fully engaged in a long book. I just have trouble working up the willpower to get to that place when I've got 50 bzillion other shorter, easier books waiting on my shelf. So what can I do to get myself up to speed on a classic without committing to a huge endeavor?
Should I... gasp... read an abridged version?
I suppose it's time to admit it: I'm reading an abridgment of Les Mis. Please don't tell me what a travesty this is- I have a finely tuned sense of bookish guilt about it already. And, in my defense, I did choose my edition carefully. It's the Barnes & Noble Classics edition, the original 1862 English translation by C.E. Wilbur, edited and abridged by Laurence M. Porter. Here's what I like: Mr. Porter's fairly involved introduction gives plenty of historical and author biographical context as well as mentioning a few themes to look out for. His notes are useful (though I wish there were more of them) and- this is the important thing- he summarizes the abridged sections. So I know what I'm missing. And it's still 800+ pages, so curious onlookers probably won't guess that it's an abridgment; I can hang on to a little of my pride while also skipping 400 likely boring pages.
When I went to pick up my copy of Les Mis, I almost traded it for a similarly-priced unabridged edition that had no introduction, no notes, no mention even of who had translated it from French. I was tempted to buy it because I wanted to have the satisfaction of having read the full text. But I know it wouldn't have meant nearly as much to me without some at least semi-scholarly commentary. So here's my question: is it better to read a marginally respectable abridgment or an unedited mass market complete text?
Tell me now: what has been your experience with abridgments? Should I be ashamed for choosing a bastardization of The Great French Novel of the 19th Century? Are there certain classics that you would recommend only in a certain form, whether abridged or unabridged? Have you read both versions of any one novel?