A couple of months ago, Orion launched their Compact Classics range of great novels which have been stripped of all the boring bits to make them more accessible to the busy commuting, multi-tasking modern reader. You can now read Moby Dick without the endless digressions about the whaling industry, or Les Miserables without the tedious preambles. The result: more people reading the classics. Possibly.
Personally I love Moby Dick and even the lengthy dissertations on sailing and whaling have a mesmerising poetry about them. As for Victor Hugo, he does go on a bit, but I wouldn't have missed a single word. However I didn't get hot under the collar about the Compact Classics until I saw an abridged edition of Vanity Fair.
There are no boring bits in Vanity Fair. It is one of the funniest, wittiest and most enjoyable books in the English language and to remove any text from the original would be like pouring half of a bottle of champagne down the sink. It is bad enough that many editions do not include Thackeray's original illustrations.
The drawings are not a superfluous addition to the text but are an integral part of the novel, often augmenting the narrative. For example when we read that a so-and-so was hard at work, it is essential that this line is accompanied by an illustration showing a man lounging in a chair with his feet up on the table.
Compact Classics are the fast forward button of literature. I don't think that they are the answer to getting more people reading classics. Surely the trick lies in persuading people that once they read the first few chapters, they will become so engrossed in the plot that they'll stop being aware of the florid prose style.
So far we haven't sold any of our Compact Classics and with any luck, they'll die a death. In the meantime I shall be displaying the full version of the wonderful Vanity Fair at the front of the shop.