Monday, April 30, 2007

The Compact Edition

Apparently a publisher called Orion Books is going to publish some new abridged versions of classics, and for mysterious reasons this is making news and causing some hand-wringing. Abridged versions of classics are hardly an invention of the time-squeezed 21st century, though, and it was the 50's who came up with the Reader's Digest Condensed versions of bestsellers. (Which, incidentally, are almost impossible to get rid of if you happen to inherit a boxful.)

Still, it's a dumb idea, unless you want to make money. The classics are all in the public domain, so anyone can publish them (and they're all on the Internet). There's not going to be any run on a new edition of Moby Dick without some aggressive marketing or perhaps the grace of Oprah. With the low overhead, appealing to the vain-but-lazy who want to feel like they've read a good book but can't really be bothered might actually work.

It's true that in the 19th century the leisured class had more time to fill, and writers included some padding and discursiveness. But we readers already have a way to deal with that. It's called skimming.

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