Fran Hill finds you can't make a minnow of Moby-Dick

18th May 2007 at 01:00
Compact Editions

Vanity Fair: In half the time By William Makepeace Thackeray

Moby-Dick: In half the time By Herman Melville

The Mill on the Floss: In half the time By George Eliot

David Copperfield: In half the time By Charles Dickens Phoenix Press Pounds 6.99 each

Bloomsbury Classics

David Copperfield By Charles Dickens Unabridged, with an introduction by Philip Reeve Bloomsbury pound;4.99

The Compact Editions from Phoenix Press seek to make classic novels "manageable" in half the time. Targeting new readers for the likes of Dickens and Thackeray is commendable, but why not go the whole hog and modernise the language too? Otherwise you keep the archaic prose, but miss many of Eliot's huffy and hilarious comments on society, Dickens' minor, memorable characters, Thackeray's wry remarks on his own writing, and Melville's genre shifts.

If a new, or young, reader of Vanity Fair can tackle mile-long sentences and such archaisms as "younkers" and "betwigst", they should be compensated with Thackeray's musings about his friend "Jones, who reads this book at his club" and who would think it "foolish, trivial, twaddling and ultra-sentimental". It's all great fun and part of what makes you continue reading - but, sadly, it's not in the compact edition.

Melville's Moby-Dick is a heady mix of narrative, drama and information about the insides of whales. The abridged version retains some variety, but because the narrative is so linear (meet Queequeg; board ship; hunt whales; find whale), the enjoyment of the book lies as much in the reading experience as in the simple storyline.

In The Mill on the Floss, we don't hear Eliot appealing to the reader to observe carthorses with her in the opening pages: "See how they stretch their shoulders... Look at their grand shaggy feet." If she can't draw her reader in, who can?

The aim of improving the narrative flow is, surely, undermined by sudden cuts which produce poor links with the following scene, such as in David Copperfield, the brilliant dialogue with Traddles about his bizarre hairstyle.

Bloomsbury has also published a series of classics - unabridged, but with chatty introductions by modern children's writers. Philip Reeve introduces David Copperfield, recommending Dickens as being as full of "strange sights and startling events" as any science fiction novel. His comment that modern authors "might make a whole novel" from Dickens' incidental stories and characters says it all.

Bloomsbury also provides "Extra, Extra" sections - entertaining, well-presented snippets of information about Dickens and his times.

I'd rate the Bloomsbury editions over the Phoenix ones, especially for teenagers. Getting to know Dickens et al isn't just about knowing the stories; it's about knowing the authors. And if half the difficulty is in the language, the Phoenix editions aren't going to do the job Fran Hill teaches English at Hampton School, Middlesex

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