May 8, 2008

Condensed books for high school students

I'm not ashamed to say that the copies I own of "Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire," "Life of Johnson," and "Wealth of Nations" are all shortened greatest hits selections rather than the full length originals by Gibbon, Boswell, and Smith. (Here is P.J. O'Rourke on "Why Is The Wealth of Nations So Damn Long?") And I wish I had a shorter version of "Tom Jones," which I tried to reread recently, but gave up with about 700 pages to go.

If I were a high school English teacher, I'd welcome condensed versions of books. They'd be less intimidating to students and they'd take up less time in class, so you can move on to other books. All the economic incentives these days are for publishers to churn out thick books in which readers can wallow in their favorite author's writing, but classrooms contain a wide variety of tastes, so a class is better off with more shorter books than fewer longer books.

With lots of older books, you could just cut out the descriptive prose. Before visual images became hyperabundant, people had a hunger for mental imagery. So, as late as "The Maltese Falcon" in 1930, you have to endure two pages of description of what Sam Spade looks like, which turned out to be not at all like Humphrey Bogart -- Hammett's Spade is 6'3" and blond.

And lots of fat books have a thin book lurking inside. For example, Tom Wolfe's 426-page The Right Stuff could furnish a terrific 125-page biography of Chuck Yeager.

My published articles are archived at -- Steve Sailer


Anonymous said...

I would have started your list with the novels of Charles Dickens, which were stretched out to the max in scores of episodes of identical length that of course first appeared in weekly magazines. As a child I read dozens of Reader's Digest Condensed Books. Helping my mother move some stuff lately, i looked at a few of them (mostly from the early and mid-1960s) and was impressed in retrospect by the quality of the editing. Most of those tomes didn't suffer from the "condensing".

If anyone out there wants to read some French classics without slogging through hundreds of turgid pages, this is the site for you:

Romans de toujours

Anonymous said...

Is reading a racket? Samual Smiles was good on how indiscriminate reading of books was bad for you. He felt that a lot of time it was self-indulgent waste of time dressed up as self improvement. As bad for you as excess drinking, he thought.
Frank Zappa and Richard Branson are just two of the high-achievers who boast of having read as little as possible. It is striking how many businessman authors of success books admit they never read anyone else’s success books.
B Wood

thoughtfulape said...

Steve. If you were a High School english teacher, then you would face a different set of incentives. English teachers are the lowest status figures on the cultural gatekeeper totempole. Their dirty little secret is that what they 'teach' (Reading for pleasure, aesthetic satisfaction and to broaden your mind)any reasonably intelligent high school student is capable of doing unassisted. Without the barrier to entry provided by page upon page of turgid prose, what little social prestige they possess would be eroded.
The english teacher's claim to expertise however slight rests on the very inaccessibility of the works he is teaching. What possible incentive does he have to favor condensed, more accessible versions?

Anonymous said...

I remember respected scholars of literature admitting skipping the descriptions of nature when reading say, novels of the 19th century, and advising the students to do the same; but not surprisingly, this omisssion has lead to the discovery of a new academic niche: ecocriticism

Ecocriticism is the study of the relationship between literature and the natural environment. Ecocriticism was officially heralded by the publication of two seminal works, both published in 1996: The Ecocriticism Reader, edited by Cheryll Glotfelty and Harold Fromm, and The Environmental Imagination, by Lawrence Buell.

Ecocritics ask questions such as: What is the role of the landscape in this work? Are the underlying values of the text ecologically sound? What is nature writing? Indeed, what is meant by the word nature? Should the examination of place be a distinctive category, much like class, gender and race? What is our perception of wilderness, and how has this perception varied throughout history?

from wikipedia

One is also recalled of the seminal work of Auerbach: Mimesis, that contrasted the long winded mimetic writing of the Greek Odyssey with the "diegetic", skeletal, existential writing in the Hebrew Bible: showing vs telling ...

Thursday said...

Somerset Maugham did an abridgment of Tom Jones. You can get used copies on Abebooks.

What is really needed is a good abridgment of Marcel Proust. Proust is easily the greatest writer since Shakespeare, but with In Search of Lost Time topping out at 3000 pages, only literary fanatics like me have actually read the damn thing.

Anonymous said...

Abridgement of Proust:

A guy dips a madeleine cake in a tea cup and remembers stuff.

Anonymous said...

So, as late as "The Maltese Falcon" in 1930, you have to endure two pages of description of what Sam Spade looks like, which turned out to be not at all like Humphrey Bogart -- Hammett's Spade is 6'3" and blond.

Chandler's Marlowe was also tall, and IIRC, when in the Big Sleep, Marlowe walks in to that rich man's house, in the book, a crazy bitch daughter/wife says "oh, you're tall ..." but in the movie it is something like "oh, you're kind of short" ...

Anonymous said...

You seem to have rather missed the point of Tom Jones, Steve. It's meant to be discursive. Would you prefer it if Tristram Shandy just got on with the story? Tom Jones is not to be read quickly, but in regular daily episodes. That's why it's called episodic. The hero's adventures are presented for your amusement, but the reader doesn't identify with him strongly, or really caere if he gets Sophie or not (spoiler: he does). Getting to the end breings not "closure" but rather disappointment that there isn't any more; and Tom Jones is pretty well a one-off, so you can't go on and start another one. I suppose Roderick Random is as close as it gets, but it's not as good. Actually many favourite novels have this quality that the overall story is less important than the episodes - Huckleberry Finn, much of Steinbeck, etc. Why are you in a hurry to get to the end?

Anonymous said...

1) "What possible incentive does he have to favor condensed, more accessible versions?"

A lot of English teachers want their students to read regardless what it does to their social standing, so there's an incentive right there. Higher ed English involves a lot of gatekeeping but few people go into high school teaching under the illusion that is going to net them great social status.

2) I've always wanted to do an abridgement of Les Miserables. I think I could make it a real page turner. I mean, it practically is already but I'd have 'em reading it in one good sitting.

3) "And lots of fat books have a thin book lurking inside"

I think writers should figure out a way to do customizable books like that. Like, think of those colossal, multi-layered, multi-plotted novels that so many authors like to do as soon as they can get away with it and then imagine if the different pieces were easily excisable, by other editors or even by readers themselves. Major character threads, the thousands of words on some tangential non-story topic the author is confident he’s got fascinating insight on...all those kinds of pieces would be easily identifiable, maybe by unashamedly detailed tables of contents perhaps, and so easily arrange-able into shorter, more specific books. And the writers would be _in_ on this, they'd write accordingly and not complain about people not reading the work as intended, because it _would_ be intended. They'd get more readers.

Anonymous said...

Here are some examples of ultra-condensed classics.

Anonymous said...

Steve: I think you should give a mention to the great Classics Illustrated series, the foundation of my own literary education. To this day I have read no other version of Moby Dick.


Anonymous said...

"Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire," "Wealth of Nations" and "The Origin of Species" are all excellent in the abridged versions I've read. But, shamefully, I didn't read the last of those until I was in my 40s.

Unknown said...

Funny and true, though John of London also has a good point. Why demand that "Tom Jones" be short and quick when many contempo people are perfectly happy watching hour after hour, season after season of "Friends" or "The Sopranos"? On the other hand ... Well, reading's a lot more work than movies and TV -- so, now that we have movies and TV for long-form narrative, why shouldn't we demand that writers get to the damn point faster than they tend to? I like a crackling pace myself. On the third hand, some people (not me, generally) just love-love-love losing themselves in a single book for a month at a time. And aren't they a market that deserves to be catered to?

I had some thoughts about books and book-lengths here. To my shame, it's rather long, for a blog-posting.

Thursday -- There *is* a good abridgment of Proust, Naxos' audiobook version.

Anonymous said...

Why should you want to encourage reading at all? Literature turns people into liberals, and it's bad for the kids; if nobody else reads, they'll look weird.

Anonymous said...

Summarizing Proust.

Anonymous said...

So, as late as "The Maltese Falcon" in 1930, you have to endure two pages of description of what Sam Spade looks like, which turned out to be not at all like Humphrey Bogart -- Hammett's Spade is 6'3" and blond.

Nevil Shute's On the Beach, another book mentioned in the prior thread, also involved some physically inappropriate casting when made into a movie. Moira, the lead female character, was described in the book as a slim petite blonde of about 20. In the movie version, the part went to Ava Gardner, who was in her late 30's, dark haired, tall, and definitely not slim. And one of the main supporting characters was around 30 in the story but played by the 60ish Fred Astaire in the movie.

Unknown said...

As I mentioned in a previous comment, Heinemann and other publishers have fine simplified classics in a wide range of genres, from Greek mythology to English lit. to continental works. They are about 30-60 pp. long, and some contain exercises at intervals. I used them to some effect with Taiwanese vo-tech college students, and they were a pretty boneheaded bunch.

Anonymous said...


I think you'll appreciate the article in the June Atlantic by "Professor X" -- an adjunct professor of English at a community college at night (he's a prof at a lower-tier liberal arts college during the day). It's not online yet, but grab yourself a cup of coffee at the local Barnes & Noble and read it there. The article is about what happens when the "college educations are for everybody" meme meets the reality that everyone doesn't have the ability to learn at the college level (or even at the high school level).

- Fred

Anonymous said...

Eh, so much of what we call "high art" is just pop culture entertainment of yesteryear. Charles Dickens is a great example. His serial stories were the equivalent of "Eastenders" in its day.

Same goes for things like Shakespeare and Puccini. Same goes for Sophocles and Homer, for that matter. People used to have time to kill before TV and Internet were invented. What we consider the endurance test of sitting through these snoozers was an actual past-time.

That's why the plots are all completely soap opera. They were made to be engaging. But just fall short of the extremely fast paced standards of modern entertainment.

I almost want to say that at least understanding these literary works helps us understand a previous epoch. But it doesn't. We come up with completely distorted, sanitized, and out-of-context ideas from our hoity-toity experience of these things. We imagine a play like Oedipus Tyrannus is a very stoic and dignified portrayal of infanticide, incest, murder, and self-mutilation. Our attitudes would be laughable, except the ironic joke is completely on us.

Rick Darby said...

There is no moral obligation to read anything, including reputed masterpieces, if it doesn't seem worth the time in enjoyment, interest, or instruction. I have stayed away from some classic books -- Tolstoy for example -- because, whatever their virtues, I just don't feel like investing the time.

But would I be better off reading a "Best of" War and Peace or Proust's In Search of Lost Time? Someone else's idea of the best bits might not be mine. But it could also be argued that the re-creation of a particular culture and locale is part of the essence of these books.

A Reader's Digest version of an acknowledged classic is also a disservice to the author.

Every writer, whether a blogger or a book author, must constantly make a choice between fullness and brevity. It's often a compromise between offering background and explanation versus trying the reader's patience and risking that he will drop out.

Not all great books are suitable for high school students. Possibly the majority aren't, because they require a certain amount of experience of the world and knowledge of history that comes only with age. Perhaps short stories by excellent writers would make more sense.

Incidentally, I am reading Boswell's Life of Johnson unabridged, and am up to page 1,020. I could have read a 300-page condensation and gotten most of his celebrated quips and observations, but the complete bio gives me a picture of the world he lived in, its manners, his contemporaries. I am glad to have taken the scenic route.