Sunday, December 16, 2012

Post: Abridge too Far (har har har)

poster advertising an illustrated edition, via
Post by Christina

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?