The problem with abridged versions of books is that they usually have zero respect for their audience, so they cut out lots of good stuff. For instance, abridging War and Peace and Les Miserables (to name two frequently abridged books) would be a crime, since the ‘unnecessary’ material is so brilliant and so fun to read. I mean seriously, if you read War And Peace without all the frequent references to how God is really the cause for Napoleon’s victories, then I don’t even know what book you’re reading (ditto for Les Mis and the Paris sewers)
Most classics, even very long ones, have some kind of internal cohesion or order that makes abridgment seem, to me, to be quite inappropriate.
However, there do exist exceptions–very rare exceptions–when you have an exceptional author who’s so unsure of himself and of his material that he makes terrible choices about what to include in his work. The major example that’s coming to mind right now is Don Quixote. Oh my god, DO NOT read an unabridged Don Quixote. The unabridged Don Quixote is FULL of this incredibly boring stories-within-stories, and they are awful. They are so dull. They contain nothing that even approaches the color of Don Quixote and Sancho Panza. In fact, even in Cervantes’ day people hated these stories-within-stories, so much so that in Part Two of Don Quixote (written and released ten years later), Cervantes promises to not use so many of them.
And for a long time that would be my only example. Don Quixote needs serious abridging. But now I have another one. The Life of Johnson ought to be about half the length it is right now. That’s because half of the book is given over to Johnson’s letters, and they are, almost uniformly, pretty dull.
It’s actually fascinating, because Boswell clearly respects Johnson so much that he thinks every word that’s ever dripped from Johnson’s pen is worthy of preservation. When really the most interesting parts of the book are those that are composed by Boswell. It’s not that Boswell is a better writer than Johnson (he’s not), it’s only that Boswell knows he’s writing for an audience, and in Johnson’s personal letters, he doesn’t.
So half the book is given over to well-arranged, witty, concise, and uncensored descriptions of Johnson’s foibles and conversations. While the other is just some boring shit (there’s a length correspondence about how Johnson is correcting a book by someone named Lord Hailes). I really do not understand how no one ever took Boswell aside and was like, dude, cut the fucking letters. But no one did.
Honestly, I am tempted to go into the Project Gutenberg version of The Life of Johnson and do my own abridgment. And in my preface I’d write: TRUST ME, YOU JERKS. I HAVE INCLUDED ALL THE GOOD STUFF. THERE IS NOTHING OF ANY LITERARY WORTH OR INTEREST IN THE REMAINDER. PLEASE DO NOT WASTE YOUR TIME.
(That’s the other problem with abridgements–they so often imply that you’re a fool or a casual reader if you’re reading the abridged version. Which is kind of galling, honestly. If the abridger doesn’t believe than an abridged version ought to exist, then why is he or she making one?)