Oh be careful little reader
I had a recent discussion with a group of homeschoolers about reading original versions of classics vs. reading abridged, sometimes egregiously abridged versions of those classics. Someone inquired about buying and reading severely dumbed-down versions that are very popular right now, and amidst the chorus of "Yes, those are great!" and "My kids love them!" responses, I felt compelled to offer an alternative opinion.
I knew I was stepping out on thin ice to do so, because our culture is preprogrammed to reject any hint that this choice or that lifestyle or this practice is genuinely superior to another. Everything is supposed to be equal. Bologna. We all know that there are differences of quality in, say, food. High-quality cuts of prime beef are better than hamburger. Lean, center-cut pork-chops are better than fat-back. Real, brewed sweet tea is better than tea from a powdered mix. Home-cooked meals are tastier and more nutritious than TV-dinners. With a few exceptions where preference is a matter of taste rather than quality, we all accept these differences. Sometimes we eat the cheaper or easier options, but we don't pretend that they taste just as good as the good stuff. And we all know that if you want the best food, you have to be prepared to pay for it--either by paying for the higher-quality expensive ingredients or by the time it takes to prepare the good food. We recognize quality rather than equality in other areas, too. Granite or marble counter-tops are nicer than formica. Teak furniture is superior to particle-board. Leather shoes are nicer than plastic.
This innate understanding about good things (at least, I think most people would agree with the general idea) does not carry over into other areas of our lives. I will avoid the larger questions of lifestyle choices and just talk about books for now. Obviously, even though we may recognize the superior quality of some things, like marble counter tops, it doesn't mean we can afford them. We often deliberately accept an inferior alternative because it is the best choice we can make, and if we have any sense at all, we do not waste our time fretting about not being able to afford that high-quality/high-ticket item, because the substitute really does work just as well, for the most part. You can sustain life on frozen dinners. You can chop veggies on formica. You can store your books on particle-board shelves (I do!), and you can walk in plastic shoes.
But books are different. There is a price to be paid for the higher-quality reading material--oh yes!--but the price is not paid in money. It is paid in time and effort to read and comprehend the unabridged books as the authors meant them to be read. If we plead lack of funds as an excuse for lest-than-first-quality merchandise, what can we plead as an excuse for choosing second-rate books? Lack of mind? And it's a sad excuse to make when it comes to our children, especially.
Abridged or unabridged books for children? I compare the choice to breast or bottle for babies. They will grow and sometimes even thrive on formula, but no one (even formula companies) disputes the fact that breastmilk is the very best food for babies. The benefits and advantages have yet to be calculated. Formula is a choice--sometimes it is the only choice--but in most cases, breastmilk is the best start that a baby can have.
In the same way, reading meaty, unabridged books that contain the strong nourishment of complex sentence structure and seemingly advanced vocabulary is the best mental nourishment for growing minds. Books like The Wind in the Willows or Charlotte's Web can be read to very young children to the extreme delight of both child and parent. There is little reason to read a meager abridgment of Moby Dick or The Three Musketeers to children of this age. (One of the mothers in the discussion was doing something like this.) They can save those classics--the genuine classics--for when they are older. There are plenty of well-written children's books to enjoy in the meantime.
When I advanced this opinion to the homeschoolers in question, I met with exactly what I expected--defensive answers that abridged books were still a good choice, and in some cases the best choice for some families. I realize that there may be some children who genuinely cannot comprehend stories such as the Just So Stories by Kipling, but surely those children with language-processing disorders are rare, just as the mothers who are genuinely unable to breastfeed their babies are rare. They exist, of course, and in both cases, we can be thankful that there are alternatives to meet the special needs of those families.
But is it possible that in many cases, we are simply not willing to pay the price of effort required to read those unabridged books?
No matter how much we wish it to be so, formica is not marble. Formula is not breast-milk. Hamburger is not filet mignon. Sliced up and dumbed-down books are not...literature.