I don’t think many young people will have heard of Reader’s Digest Condensed Books, a series of volumes issued quarterly from 1950 through 1997, each containing (usually) four or five recent bestsellers in abridged form. My mother, a voracious reader on a tight budget as a young woman, subscribed to the series for a time, and I remember seeing them on the shelves in our house. I never read one, and I wondered then what I wonder now: how did the editors go about abridging a taut thriller by Jack Higgins, or a mystery by Dick Francis, without cutting so close to the bones of the story as to sever the sinews? How did they decide what went and what stayed in the not-very-long To Kill a Mockingbird, for goodness’ sake?

I imagine that for authors, the feeling that their gorge was rising at the thought of their work’s being abridged was suppressed by a fat check from Reader’s Digest, and the prospect of winning new readers who might then buy their next book whole and intact. My mother dropped her subscription as the household budget improved. And as for me, as I said, the idea of expurgated books was a nonstarter for me from the first, and I have maintained a suspicion of abridgments of any kind all my life. (And the same goes for bowdlerizings, as I said in a recent column.)

Now as a teacher I knew perfectly well that in the course of a semester my students and I would rarely have time to read and discuss all of Tocqueville’s Democracy in America, or Hobbes’s Leviathan, or another similarly sprawling work, unless I so limited the reading assignments as to include little else in a highly focused seminar. And when it comes to teaching constitutional law, no one in his right mind asks students to read unabridged Supreme Court decisions—at least those of today’s justices, who suffer from logorrhea. (The decision in the Court’s recent racial preferences case runs 237 pages, including a syllabus and five opinions.) Nevertheless, I want to make the judgment myself of what is most important in such texts, which is why I always had my students buy unabridged works in political theory even when I assigned only some parts of them, and years ago I began to edit judicial decisions myself rather than rely on published casebooks.

The author’s intention to communicate, and the reader’s effort to understand, are shot through with ambiguities, equivocations, mixed motives, misunderstandings, and confusions on both sides.


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I know that books—modern ones, anyway—are products of collaboration between authors and editors. And in no age could it be said that any book is a perfectly transparent window into an author’s mind. The author’s intention to communicate, and the reader’s effort to understand, are shot through with ambiguities, equivocations, mixed motives, misunderstandings, and confusions on both sides. Nevertheless a book in its entirety, once given to the world, is a kind of integer, a whole from which nothing should be subtracted if it is to remain what it is. I have never subscribed to the critical fashion of dismissing authorial intent; I think it never ceases to matter. Yet there is a sense in which a book takes on a life of its own, and may have ramifications its author could not foresee. To abridge a book—any book, but particularly an important one—is to intervene without warrant in the course of its life, and to harm its integrity.

There is another sense in which books have integrity, and that is as physical productions with beauty, function, and endurance over time. I have some beautifully made nineteenth-century books—finely milled paper, sewn spines, leather bindings, gilt edges—but it’s been a long time since the possession of a decent home library was a luxury good. Publishers need to make money, and modern readers don’t want to spend too much. Widespread literacy, the rise of college educations in the middle class, and the concerted efforts of publishers to reach a broader public led first to the production of inexpensive clothbound reprint editions, and then the advent of paperbacks around 1940. The paper was shoddier, the spines glued rather than sewn, and the designs frequently pedestrian. Cheaper books meant more sales, and economies of scale kept the profits coming in.

I can think of just one improvement in the physical production of books in my lifetime, and that was the adoption of an industry standard for acid-free paper. Paper made from wood pulp in the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries had a high acid content, which meant it browned and became brittle over time, ultimately doomed to crumble to dust. (Paper made from cotton rag is naturally resistant to such decay, which is why books from the early nineteenth century and before will outlast many later ones.)

The acid-free standard means the pages of our books will endure, but the trends otherwise in book manufacturing are not happy ones. Take print-on-demand, in which a book with low sales volume is not stocked in a warehouse but churned out of laser printers and bunged together with a bit of glue and a slapdash cover when individual orders are placed. The resulting book is liable to become a pile of loose pages after a single reading. One of my happy discoveries has been that some British literature for which there is low American demand—the novels, say, of Muriel Spark or Rumer Godden—is available in higher-quality paperbacks on the British market where sales are better, so I order from Blackwell’s in Oxford, which ships free, without taxes, to the United States.

Whether they are produced on demand or in mass quantities, today’s books (paperbacks especially) are often of indifferent quality. If the spines aren’t cracking and pages aren’t loosening free, the paper is tacky and the print muddy, or the hardcover boards are warping.

Reprints of older books, especially by academic presses, are frequently disappointing. I have on my desk two copies of the same book, both paperbacks, produced a half century apart by two different university presses. The original edition has thick, creamy paper, a sturdily glued binding, and crisp, clear print from physical type. The new edition is a facsimile reprint, meaning that the original was scanned or photo-reproduced and then laser-printed. This is done with the best of intentions, to give the two editions uniform pagination, so scholars using the book will always be citing the same page for the same words.

But the publishers of the new edition decided for some reason that the font size in the original was too small, though it is perfectly readable. So they blew it up a bit, with the page size enlarged to accommodate the larger font. But there is a visible cost to that decision, since the book was not reset in physical type (which practically no printers do any longer), nor even laser-printed from a new text file, but evidently reprinted from whole page images. The result is that now the letters on the page are just a bit muddy, blurry around the edges, even with an ever-so-slight funhouse-mirror distortion to their shape. Combine this with thinner paper (the original edition’s 600 pages are a quarter inch thicker), with less opacity and a brighter white surface, and the result is a book that is more of a chore to read. As for the binding, time and use will tell. But the shortcut of scanned-image printing meant that copy editing was wholly bypassed, so the new edition contains all the uncorrected typos and errors of the first, of which thankfully there are not many.

Speaking of copy editing, while it is still a function major publishing houses undertake with new books, in the last quarter century it seems to have been all but eliminated by many smaller publishers and academic presses. (In academic journals it seems unheard of, which is one reason why so much bad writing appears in them.) Readers today have to hack their way through thickets of awkward writing, their path strewn with grammatical solecisms, misspellings, and typographical errors that tangle their feet and evoke uncharitable and frequently unjust thoughts about the author’s intelligence.

The principle that calls for good editing is the same one that cries out against abridgment. In both cases we are aspiring to the kind of transparency I mentioned above, as clear a window as possible for the reader’s vision into the writer’s mind.


Unjust because every writer needs good editing, the object being to clear away whatever impedes the meeting of writer’s mind and reader’s. The principle that calls for good editing is the same one that cries out against abridgment. In both cases we are aspiring to the kind of transparency I mentioned above, as clear a window as possible for the reader’s vision into the writer’s mind.

I don’t want to be a nostalgia merchant; there are a lot of great things happening in publishing today. And the twentieth century gave us the dubious idea of “condensed books,” after all. But the decline of editing, and the hit-or-miss physical standards in the publishing industry today, are reasons I love to haunt used bookstores.

A note to readers: After this, my fiftieth Bookshelf column, I am taking August off, but the Bookshelf will be here, with another of Public Discourse’s editors taking over for the month. I’ll be back in September.