Monday, January 21, 2008

Please, sir. I want some more.

Some months ago, amid casual small-talk at the office, a coworker piped up, "Hey, does anyone want my copy of Oliver Twist? I just can't get into it."

While it's not the Dickens I had in mind to read next — and I am determined to read many more; say, one a year or so — it is one of his better known works and a popular favourite. And it's hard to turn down a free book besides. So I took R up on his offer.

It languished in my desk drawer for some time; then the day came that I was ready for it — I turned it over in my hands, examined the illustration on the cover, checked for introductory notes (none), read the blurbs only to discover: it's abridged!

R was the brunt of some jokes for this, and the book stayed in my desk drawer. Till the day I faced a metro ride home with no reading material (having been driven in the morning and preferring not to lug my current, 1000-page epic read with me). An abridged book is better than no book at all, right? I'm not so sure.

Something about it felt off from the start. How much of that is owing to the fact of my awareness of it being abridged is impossible to gauge. But I felt an obligation — to both the book and my coworker — to read it.

Have you ever read an abridgement? Have ever read both an abridged novel and its version in full? How did they compare?

I'd like to know at what level, in general, abridging takes place: Are sentences shortened and vocabulary simplified? Are whole paragraphs and chapters cut out?

Let's find out, shall we:

In great families, when an advantageous place cannot be obtained, either in possession, reversion, remainder, or expectancy, for the young man who is growing up, it is a very general custom to send him to sea. The board, in imitation of so wise and salutary an example, took counsel together on the expediency of shipping off Oliver Twist, in some small trading vessel bound to a good unhealthy port. This suggested itself as the very best thing that could possibly be done with him: the probability being, that the skipper would flog him to death, in a playful mood, some day after dinner, or would knock his brains out with an iron bar; both pastimes being, as is pretty generally known, very favourite and common recreations among gentlemen of that class. The more the case presented itself to the board, in this point of view, the more manifold the advantages of the step appeared; so, they came to the conclusion that the only way of providing for Oliver effectually, was to send him to sea without delay

(I'm sure it comes as no surprise that Oliver is not, in fact, sent to sea.)

According to a quick consultation with an online version, the paragraph that immediately precedes this one in my copy occurs some 9 pages beforehand in a previous chapter, omitting entirely an encounter with a Mr Gamfield and his donkey.

My copy has 346 pages, the online version indicates 509; 39 chapters versus 53. Mine was "specially abridged for Puffin Classics," which fact also leads me to assume somewhat greater care was taken than it might in other publishing houses.

I'm mere pages away from the end and not particularly compelled to find out how it turns out. The story is certainly melodramatic, and the bad guys are bad in full Dickensian nefariousness, but I'm not fully drawn in. The book feels choppy. That may be in part due to my personal reading circumstances; Dickens's writing may not have been at it's best here (?); but mostly I blame reckless abridgement.

More than once I had to backtrack and in a couple specific instances wondered how some characters had entered upon the scene. It's clear to me that neither vocabulary nor complex sentences were simplified. But I feel shortchanged on explanations. If the context of the above excerpt is any indication, I expect many colourful anecdotes were omitted and subplots considerably pared down.

Why does anyone read Dickens? For the crazy plots! While his descriptions add colour, they could stand some paring down; cut back on plot, on the other hand, and the whole book starts to unravel. Crazy coincidences without those meticulous interconnections start looking far-fetched to the point that I'm no longer willing to suspend disbelief.

So I wonder what is the point of abridging Dickens? If to appeal to younger children, I'd've taken another tack: "translate" to modern day language (yes, of course, the language is beautiful and ought to impart all sorts of educational benefits, but I'd leave that for kids already keen on reading Dickens, or at least reading), but leave the story alone. This abridgement failed to entice me, and it confused me; I don't see that it would be any more successful with younger readers. I don't plan on reading Oliver Twist in full, and I will ensure I steer clear of abridged novels in the future.

All thoughts on Dickens in general, Oliver Twist in particular, and the idea and practice of abridgement welcome.
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