Abridge, Too Far

When I was in high school, Cliffs Notes were available (for those who could afford them) to get summaries of the key elements of a variety of popular books. I know how students used Cliffs Notes, but I have always been uncertain as to the intention behind their creation. Giving them the benefit of the doubt, I like to think they were created as a memory aid for those who have already read a book, a guide to help someone better understand what they were reading–not a replacement for the book itself.

When I began listening to audiobooks, I quickly learned that I had to be careful in selecting a book. Some titles appeared twice, once in their full form, and once as an abridgment. Abridgments are abominations that I still, to this day, can’t understand. With Cliff Notes, I can at least reason that they supplement the book. What purpose do abridgments serve? What’s more, I can’t understand how an author would knowingly allow their books to be abridged.

Most writers I know fight tooth and claw to keep each word of their prose pristine. Editors recommend cutting a word here and a word there, and we do it only with the greatest reluctance. I work mostly in short fiction and cutting is often the most painful part of the process. I can only imagine how much more challenging it is with a novel or nonfiction book. Given such a reluctance to cut, I just can’t understand how abridgments exist. Is it money? Are the same writers who make cuts to their work only reluctantly willing to hack up the same work for a little extra cash?

We can debate whether reading a book or listening to the complete audiobook results in the same thing. I’ve argued for years that the text is the same in both cases so someone who reads the paperback version of, say, Essays of E. B White and someone who listens to the complete audiobook version will be able to talk about the book on an equal footing. This is not true for an abridgment, however. An abridgment is not the same text as the original. Pieces are missing, and who’s to say if those pieces would be important to any given reader. Is it fair to say that if you’ve read the abridged version of, say Dark Sun by Richard Rhodes, you can claim to have read Dark Sun? As in the old baseball record books, I think such a claim requires an asterisk.

Essays of E.B. White

I’ve been thinking about abridgments lately because of an ad that keeps popping up on Facebook. It’s for a service called Blinkist. The service claims it allows you to “fit reading into your life.” It does this by providing short (15 minute or so) key takeaways of popular nonfiction books. I took a look at some titles in the History category. Sapiens by Yuval Noah Harari, a book I recently finished, is summarized in 19 minutes of audio. The actual unabridged audiobook is over 15 hours long. Doris Kearns Goodwin’s Team of Rivals, which I read last year is summarized in 19 minutes. Actual unabridged audiobook length: 41 hours 32 minutes. This, to me, is abridge too far.

First, reading (or listening to) a summary of key takeaways is not the same thing as reading the book. For one thing, the takeaways are the opinion of the person summarizing the book. My takeaways might differ if I read the book. For another, you are missing the context behind the takeaways. When I read, I often relate the thing I am reading now to something I read earlier. I draw interesting insights from these kinds of relationships.

Second, reading a summary of key takeaways eliminates the voice of the author. Part of the pleasure of reading is the voices that come through. This is as true for nonfiction as it is for fiction. Part of the reason I so enjoy Will Durant’s Story of Civilization series of books is Durant’s voice. Ditto for writers like E. B. White, John McPhee, Simon Winchester, David McCullough, and on and on. Fifteen minutes of bullet points can’t replace that.

Blinkist boasts a community of 7 million users as part of a “reading revolution.” I have no qualms with this statement. Far fewer than 7 million people can carry out a revolution. My worry is that the revolt, in this case, is against reading. These millions are not consuming the works, they are instead like vultures, tearing away at the liver and intestines of a book that has already been gutted by profiteers playing on people’s desire to feel well-read without doing the actual work of reading.


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