Orion seems to be playing up the time—or lack of it—element more than the difficulty side, pitching their new editions as the perfect solution for those who want to appear well-read but simply don't have the time, in our busy modern world, to sit down and read every page of the originals. Oddly enough, I'd have a bit more sympathy if they played up the difficulty angle, because a good many classic books can, to a modern reader unfamiliar with the world depicted and the language used, be somewhat daunting. Here, though, I agree with Matthew Crockatt, a London bookseller who says, 'I’m afraid reading some of these books is hard work, which is why you have to develop as a reader. If people don’t have time to read Anna Karenina, then fine. But don’t read a shortened version and kid yourself it’s the real thing.'
Well said, Mr Crockatt. As readers, we all start off with books on the level of the 'Dick and Jane' titles that were still in use when I was in Grade One, and then graduate to progressively more difficult works as we work our way through school, until we're reading Macbeth in high school and (if the education system has done its job) understanding it. The trick—although it's hardly that, more common sense and a bit of work—is to build gradually, going from book to book until before you know it you're reading Our Mutual Friend and recognising that while the setting and language might be different to what we're used to, the characters and their reasons for acting the way they do aren't so very far removed from the people we see around us, and read about in the newspapers, each day. To use a sporting analogy, no one would advise an armchair athlete who wanted to run in a 10 kilometre event to just lace up a pair of trainers and go do it; instead, he or she would be advised to follow a programme which starts off slowly—running for one minute out of every five the first week, say—and then builds on that over the course of several weeks until, by the end of training, he or she is running the entire distance. In this way, a goal that seemed daunting, if not impossible, at the outset of training can be accomplished (of which I am living proof; I used such a programme, and was able to complete three 10K runs and even a half-marathon, a triumph of determination over innate physical ability if ever there was one. But I digress).
However, building one's way up to reading Moby Dick does take a fair bit of—and here's that word again—time, which, according to the well-meaning folk at Orion, is something of which we simply don't have enough. Their thoughts, apparently, are along the lines that if someone doesn't have time to read the unabridged version of Moby Dick, one certainly doesn't have time to do all the reading that will get him or her to the point where they can sit and read Melville's book. Here is where I start to get a bit cross. I can understand, and to a degree sympathise with, the point of view which says 'Such-and-such is long and difficult; not only do I not really understand it, it's a bit on the dull side, and I'm not enjoying it.' I'll read just about anything you care to put my way, doorstopper-sized classics included, but even I, moi qui vous parle, confess to having been somewhat bored by a few Approved Classics By Revered Authors that I've read (no names, no pack drill; but I can't think I'll ever be picking up Dickens's Barnaby Rudge again, at least not without a healthy financial incentive). Books are meant to be enjoyed; if you're not enjoying what you're reading, for whatever reason, put it down and go on to something else. But don't start whingeing about how you don't have time to sit down and read Wives and Daughters or David Copperfield. If something is important enough to you—whether it's reading a book or planting a garden or taking part in amateur theatricals or pick-up hockey games—you'll find the time to do it. How many of the people who claim they don't have time to read Vanity Fair will tell you, in the same breath, that they won't miss an episode of Lost or House or Desperate Housewives, or that they've made it to level 379 of some video game or other, or that now that baseball season is here they find they have a lot less spare time than they used to?
The bottom line is that those who want to read David Copperfield will read it; those who don't, or who don't feel they have the time, won't, and chopping 40% of Dickens's text is unlikely to make much difference to the latter group. The Orion 'compact' editions will doubtless make a bit of a splash for the short term; but in ten years or so I suspect that Dickens's unabridged version will still be readily available, while the Orion version will be long forgotten (the less than compelling cover illustration—see above—won't help much, either). For those who do pick up and read the abridged version: good for you. But don't try telling me you've read Charles Dickens's David Copperfield, or I shall be compelled to point out that no, you haven't, not really: you've read what someone else thinks Charles Dickens's David Copperfield should be, which is a very different matter; one that's as true as taxes is, and nothing, as Barkis points out, is truer than them. At least, Barkis points this out in the original; whether he continues to do so in the Orion version remains to be seen.