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Abridgments

When I first started listening to audiobooks, I didn’t pay much attention to whether the recording was abridged or unabridged. I often found myself disappointed by plot holes, strange character progressions, and lack of description. Eventually I caught on and now I never pick up an audiobook or download a recording without first ensuring that it’s the unabridged edition. However, I still have a few abridged versions in my ipod archives, and occasionally I listen to them. This week I revisited one, and while I enjoyed the book, I felt myself craving more. I’m almost to the point of going to the library and finding the unabridged version just to satisfy myself.

For those of you who don’t listen to or read abridgments (you wise readers!) this is how it generally works: Major scenes are left largely intact, minor scenes will be condensed as much as possible, and the remaining plot details are summarized. The “show, not tell” credo of writing is thrown out the window in abridgments. Telling is preferable, because it moves the story along faster, without that cumbersome dialogue and those irritating descriptions of character and setting. The reader often feels like she’s missing something, which of course, she is.

What I don’t understand is why abridgments even exist. Cliffs notes, I understand. They are made for study purposes and help students to understand the basics of a complicated plot. (Of course, they are often inappropriately used as a replacement for reading the book, but that’s another rant for another day.) But the only purpose abridgments serve is to deliver a book that is shorter than the original. If a reader is enjoying a book, why would he want less to read? Yes, there are some great works out there that are a challenge to get through. War and Peace comes to mind. But I would think that the type of person who wants to read War and Peace would understand the importance of reading it in its original form. Not reading the original is like challenging yourself to climb Mt. Everest, only to wimp out three-quarters of the way to the top.

On the other side of the coin, from the author’s point of view, if the book works well in the shorter form, why wasn’t it edited down in the first place? Books don’t have to be long or short; they need to be the proper length to suit the story. I don’t see how abridgments fit into that picture.

There is an interesting parallel between book abridging and the cutting down of television episodes to fit TV time slots. Everyone who buys DVD sets of their favorite television shows knows that there’s more to each episode than is seen on TV, with the possible exception of the first time the episode airs. TBS, in particular, is famous for cutting shows down. I occasionally catch TBS episodes of Friends and The Office, two shows that I know very well, and I’m always disappointed to miss a joke or a funny scene. I think the difference between TV and books in this area is that the TV writers know that some of what they’re writing will end up being cut in syndication. It’s an inevitability that the writers must work with as part of their process. I assume most book authors don’t think about what can be cut when they publish their books. To go back to my previous point, if something can be cut from a book without taking away from the story, the author should consider removing it before it’s published in the first place, not in case of abridgment.

I’ve gotten used to including pictures in my posts, so in closing, here’s a picture of my favorite abridge:

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