Abridgers by Isaac Disraeli

Story type: Essay

Abridgers are a kind of literary men to whom the indolence of modern readers, and indeed the multiplicity of authors, give ample employment.

It would be difficult, observed the learned Benedictines, the authors of the Literary History of France, to relate all the unhappy consequences which ignorance introduced, and the causes which produced that ignorance. But we must not forget to place in this number the mode of reducing, by way of abridgment, what the ancients had written in bulky volumes. Examples of this practice may be observed in preceding centuries, but in the fifth century it began to be in general use. As the number of students and readers diminished, authors neglected literature, and were disgusted with composition; for to write is seldom done, but when the writer entertains the hope of finding readers. Instead of original authors, there suddenly arose numbers of Abridgers. These men, amidst the prevailing disgust for literature, imagined they should gratify the public by introducing a mode of reading works in a few hours, which otherwise could not be done in many months; and, observing that the bulky volumes of the ancients lay buried in dust, without any one condescending to examine them, necessity inspired them with an invention that might bring those works and themselves into public notice, by the care they took of renovating them. This they imagined to effect by forming abridgments of these ponderous tomes.

All these Abridgers, however, did not follow the same mode. Some contented themselves with making a mere abridgment of their authors, by employing their own expressions, or by inconsiderable alterations. Others formed abridgments in drawing them from various authors, but from whose works they only took what appeared to them most worthy of observation, and embellished them in their own style. Others again, having before them several authors who wrote on the same subject, took passages from each, united them, and thus combined a new work; they executed their design by digesting in commonplaces, and under various titles, the most valuable parts they could collect, from the best authors they read. To these last ingenious scholars we owe the rescue of many valuable fragments of antiquity. They fortunately preserved the best maxims, characters, descriptions, and curious matters which they had found interesting in their studies.

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Some learned men have censured these Abridgers as the cause of our having lost so many excellent entire works of the ancients; for posterity becoming less studious was satisfied with these extracts, and neglected to preserve the originals, whose voluminous size was less attractive. Others, on the contrary, say that these Abridgers have not been so prejudicial to literature; and that had it not been for their care, which snatched many a perishable fragment from that shipwreck of letters which the barbarians occasioned, we should perhaps have had no works of the ancients remaining. Many voluminous works have been greatly improved by their Abridgers. The vast history of Trogus Pompeius was soon forgotten and finally perished, after the excellent epitome of it by Justin, who winnowed the abundant chaff from the grain.

Bayle gives very excellent advice to an Abridger, Xiphilin, in his “Abridgment of Dion,” takes no notice of a circumstance very material for entering into the character of Domitian:–the recalling the empress Domitia after having turned her away for her intrigues with a player. By omitting this fact in the abridgment, and which is discovered through Suetonius, Xiphilin has evinced, he says, a deficient judgment; for Domitian’s ill qualities are much better exposed, when it is known that he was mean-spirited enough to restore to the dignity of Empress the prostitute of a player.

Abridgers, Compilers, and Translators, are now slightly regarded; yet to form their works with skill requires an exertion of judgment, and frequently of taste, of which their contemners appear to have no due conception. Such literary labours it is thought the learned will not be found to want; and the unlearned cannot discern the value. But to such Abridgers as Monsieur Le Grand, in his “Tales of the Minstrels,” and Mr. Ellis, in his “English Metrical Romances,” we owe much; and such writers must bring to their task a congeniality of genius, and even more taste than their original possessed. I must compare such to fine etchers after great masters:–very few give the feeling touches in the right place.

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It is an uncommon circumstance to quote the Scriptures on subjects of modern literature! but on the present topic the elegant writer of the books of the Maccabees has delivered, in a kind of preface to that history, very pleasing and useful instructions to an Abridger. I shall transcribe the passages, being concise, from Book ii. Chap. ii. v. 23, that the reader may have them at hand:–

“All these things, I say, being declared by Jason of Cyrene, in five books, we will assay to abridge in one volume. We will be careful that they that will read may have delight, and that they that are desirous to commit to memory might have ease, and that all into whose hands it comes might have profit.” How concise and Horatian! He then describes his literary labours with no insensibility:–“To us that have taken upon us this painful labour of abridging, it was not easy, but a matter of sweat and watching.”–And the writer employs an elegant illustration: “Even as it is no ease unto him that prepareth a banquet, and seeketh the benefit of others; yet for the pleasuring of many, we will undertake gladly this great pain; leaving to the author the exact handling of every particular, and labouring to follow the rules of an abridgment.” He now embellishes his critical account with a sublime metaphor to distinguish the original from the copier:–“For as the master builder of a new house must care for the whole building; but he that undertaketh to set it out, and paint it, must seek out fit things for the adorning thereof; even so I think it is with us. To stand upon every point, and go over things at large, and to be curious in particulars, belonging to the first author of the story; but to use brevity, and avoid much labouring of the work, is to be granted to him that will make an Abridgment.”

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Quintilian has not a passage more elegantly composed, nor more judiciously conceived.

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