Abridgement, in literature, a term signifying the reduction of a book into a smaller compass. The art of conveying much sentiment, in few words, is the happiest talent an author can be possessed of. This talent is necessary in the present state of literature; for many writers have acquired the dexterity of spreading a few critical thoughts over several hundred pages. When an author hits upon a thought that pleases him, he is apt to dwell upon it, to view it in different lights, to force it in improperly, or upon the slightest of relations. Though this may be pleasant to the writer, it may easily tire and vex the reader.
There is another great source of diffusion in composition. It is a capital object with an author, whatever be the subject, to give vent to all his best thoughts. When he finds a proper place for any of them, he is particularly happy. But, rather than sacrifice a thought he is fond of, he forces it in by way of digression, or superfluous illustration. If none of these expedients answer his purpose, he has recourse to the margin and footnotes,a very convenient apartment for all manner of pedantry and impertinence.
An abridger, however, is not subject to these temptations. The thoughts are not his own; he views them in a cooler and less affectionate manner; he discovers an impropriety in some, a vanity in others, and a want of utility in many. His business, therefore, is to retrench superfluities, digressions, quotations, pedantry, etc. and to lay before the public only what is really useful. This is by no means an easy employment: to abridge some books requires talent equal, if not superior, to those of the author. The facts, manner, spirit, and reasoning, must be preserved; nothing essential, either in argument or illustration, ought to be omitted. The difficulty of the task is perhaps the principal reason why we have so few good abridgements.
Abridging is particularly useful in taking the substance of what is delivered by professors and others. Every public speaker has circumlocutions, redundancies, lumber, which deserve not to be copied. All that is really useful may be comprehended in a short compass. If the plan of the discourse, and arguments employed in support of the different branches are taken down, you have the whole. These you may afterwards extend in the form of a discourse dressed in your own language. This would not only be a more rational employment, but would likewise be an excellent method of improving people in composition, an object too little attended to in our universities. Besides, it would be more for the honour of professors; as it would prevent at least such immense loads of disjointed and unintelligible rubbish from being handed about by the name of such a man's lectures.