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.


Anonymous said...

I hate reading abridged books! I remember when I first discovered that someone actually did that. Shortened books. It was shocking. (I was a sheltered child).

I don't remember Oliver as well, due to the vast number of productions of it, but I read Bleak House right before the Gillian Anderson version came out and that boy wrote cliff hangers. Spontaneous combustion? Yowza.

Bybee said...

Abridged books feel choppy to me as well. They're not quite as bad as Reader's Digest Condensed Books, but almost.

Anonymous said...

It's funny you should mention an abridged Oliver Twist-- when we were visiting my folks during the holidays, my husband was scrounging around for something to read and came across a copy. He was going to read it, being interested in Dickens. I noticed that it was suspiciously slender, and sure enough, it was an abridged version.

I'm a little horrified by the notion of abridging a book-- it's not the same book at the end, is it? Maybe they should present such books as 'inspired by', and leave off the pretense that they are the same thing. I remember my grandparents had all sorts of those Readers Digest condensed versions, which I read as a kid. Those are worse, of course. I suppose the intention is of pulling in readers who otherwise might not read the full version, and that seems like a good thing. But what do they come away with? Is it an adequate substitute for the full version? Do they really get a sense of the authors ability and intent? It seems patronizing in some way, like the dumbing down of television, the assumption that people are a little stupid and can't handle anything challenging. Ick.

Anonymous said...

The only abridged Dickens I've read is "David Copperfield as a boy", read at school when about 11.
I've loved many Dickens, particularly Our Mutual Friend and Little Dorrit. But he's a great writer, and although there are some longeurs (eg the American sections of Martin Chuzzlewit were not to my taste), I find the books race by, even though long.

Anonymous said...

How ironic you should mention this. I'm teaching that very abridged version in two eight-grade classes.

Having read both the original and now this abridged, I can say that reading abridged Dickens shows how much of his work was simply filler to meet his weekly syndication deadline. The Puffin version contains the most important parts of the story plus a little extra to give readers the feel of how convoluted Dickens can be with his sub-sub-sub-sub plots.

It wouldn't be my first choice for personal reading though. Bloated as Dickens is, I still think the original is better to an abridgment.

I tried with my super-advanced kids to read the original Twist. It was entirely too difficult. The Puffin version simplifies some of the sentences (through omission only -- no re-writing) and makes it more accessible for 13 year-olds. At the same time, it's similar enough to the original that they get the experience of reading "real" Dickens.

As for their response to the story, the Dickensian habit of building, building, building, only to start providing resolution to the main plot and the 254 sub plots in the last 20% of the book is driving them nuts. "Boring!" Then came some of the revelations of the book and they're walking out of class talking to each other about how this or that twist (no pun initially intended) will resolve in the end.

They are, in a word, finally having fun with the book -- during the last 80 pages...