There is a bridge in our garden with which I have a complicated relationship. It is a charming, rustic, bridge which gives our garden a romantic air, but it is treacherous. In winter it becomes slick with invisible ice, and even in summer, rain can make it slippery. Last winter that I gave up using the bridge and forded the stream as a safer alternative. Happily my dad took the time this spring to add a railing, not a beautiful railing, to be sure, but at least I can now use the bridge as a bridge.
We have discovered over the past three years that this impractical aestheticism is a recurring theme in our house. For instance: we have a well. We know we have a well because we get water from it. But it is so carefully hidden, that we have no clue where it is. All we really know is that we have a well, and it is not where the former owner said it was. Then there is the electrical wiring! Well, let’s not open that can of worms, I’ll just say that we own a lovely house (balconies, tall windows, stone fire places) which by all probabilities ought to have burned to the ground years ago. Despite the nuisance, this trend says something about those who built the house. It says that they cared a great deal about beauty, but had little respect for safety or convenience.
I like to think that books are similar to our house. They may be difficult to read, poorly written, boring, or just plain bad, but they always tell a story about the person who wrote them. It is, arguably, the greatest gift of books that they transcend a particular culture, time, or even, personal taste. To read a book, even a contemporary book, is to be given a window into another person’s mind, a chance to interact with thoughts that are not your own. We may not like what we see there, it may even be dangerous (like screwy electrical wiring) but we can still learn from it.
This is why I despise abridgment. It hampers our chance of interacting with strange ideas, ideas that are foreign to us and might change us for the better or teach us something to avoid which we had never seen before. Sadly it is often the older books, the ones most likely (ironically) to teach us something new, which are abridged. But new books, also, will one day be old. So in my opinion, no book, old or new, good or bad, should be abridged. After all, is it the editor’s taste we want to experience or the author’s? Each word in a book, whether consciously or not, is a reflection of the author’s personality, ideals, or purpose. Thus to cut something out is as drastic a change as to stick something in; it changes the overall message of the book. Of course, I am not saying the the editor cannot have better taste than the author. It is quite possible the editor could write the story twice as well as the author, simply let the editor become an author first and I will have no reason to complain.
So why do we read abridged books? We look at Les Miserables or Moby Dick and despair at the length, especially the long digressions. Or we join a book club and they choose a book we don’t like. Or we know we really ought to read Robinson Crusoe but, who has the time?
It all boils down to, do we read books purely for entertainment? Or from a feeling that we have to be able to say that we have read that particular book in order to consider ourselves well-read? Or just to get it over with? If you read for any of those reasons, then by all means, don’t waste your time, read an abridged version. But please believe me, you are missing something beautiful and worthwhile. The slippery bridge may be dangerous, but the bridge with planks missing is both dangerous and ugly.