Over the course of more than a day, I have been in a fascinating discussion with some acquaintances about the nature of authorship. One of them brought up a book that he had read and liked that was a summary of the Wealth of Nations. This work, titled the Invisible Hand (review forthcoming in a while, I have a copy of the book on its way), is a short one that contains about 10% or less of the contents of Smith’s original work. The book form it is published in as revised has an odd quirk in that there is no listing of who did the editing and summarizing. This caused a fair amount of discussion, as one person doubted the worth of a work that spoke so much about the price of corn, and as others (myself included) commented on the need to give some sort of credit (or blame) to the person or people making the epitome for taking Smith’s excerpts out of context. Admittedly, I have a favorite Adam Smith quote that I frequently post on my e-mails, and that is obviously taken out of context as is the nature of isolated quotes.
There is a question, though, about the justice that is done when one selects larger excerpts. Part of the question is the nature of the illusion of context that is provided by paragraph level excerpts that is not provided by sentence level ones, much less by word-length ones. Very frequently authors have a clear idea that they follow throughout an entire text, and it may take a whole chapter to understand what an author is saying, and sometimes even an entire book to get the idea of where the author is coming from and what their approach is on a given topic. As is frequently noted when it comes to the analysis of text, it is easy for readers to go wrong in understanding an author from only isolated examples of their writing. How does an author use particular words, and with how many senses? What is the chain of an author’s argument? What motivated the author to write in the first place, and what is the conversation that the particular book takes part in? The more that we can capture the context of a work, the better chance we have of better understanding where an author is coming from and what that author is trying to say.
Epitomes and abridgments are a very common element of writing. It is very familiar now, for example, to read books that contain the works of writers, especially posthumously, chopped up into devotionals and packages of scraps of work taken out of context and viewed as proverbs or pithy statements of obvious wisdom instead of the elements of larger and more sustained arguments and reasoning about a given subject. Indeed, in the ancient world epitomes were particularly common, not least because may ancient writers wrote lengthy manuscripts that others did not want to copy, and so there are some people in the ancient world who became particularly known for providing shorter abridgments of these larger works for the “good parts” or the “important parts,” leaving the larger whole works to vanish into the memory hole. Eusebius, for example, the fourth century Hellenistic Christian who was so much a fan of Constantine and his efforts to bring the late Roman state and Hellenistic Christianity into alliance, was one such figure who summarized and abridged earlier histories in providing a shorter narrative of the history of the Christian Church. Nor was he alone, as the exact same process occurred in 2 Maccabees, which is an abridgment of a much larger work about the history of the time. It is notable that in the ancient world, in contrast to now, those who did the abridging were themselves assigned credit (or blame) for their work in editing unmanageable larger texts into their surviving fragments.
And this question of credit and blame is important. While an abridged work still contains only the words of the original author, the fact that context and connecting tissue has been removed from the larger work demands that the person who did the abridging stand up and take credit for the work that is done. Is this abridgment done in good faith? What is the importance of that which is not included, and what are the reasons why some things are included and others are not? What violence is done to the author’s argument and perspective by not including that which is judged to be too technical or too boring? These are not questions that are easy to answer, and they can only be answered to the extent that we can compare an abridgment to an original work. And in some cases, that is not possible. Fortunately, for the case of Adam Smith’s The Wealth of Nations, it is.