Usually condensed books are an unnatural act. Only when pruned by the author do they escape disfiguring. Now the distinguished English biographer, Michael Holroyd, has wisely followed Leon Edel's example and abridged his own sprawling multi-volume Bernard Shaw into a single fat, delicious tome. At 800-plus pages, it's still hefty enough to serve as a murder weapon, but that's a fraction less daunting than before. And it's hard to imagine how one could squeeze a century of the indefatigable Mr. Shaw into a smaller space.

It is a lovely thing when a great writer finds a worthy biographer. Holroyd is a diligent, perceptive scholar, apparently tireless, but he is also a writer blessed with perfect pitch. He describes the biographer's art in Hugh Kingsmill's phrase, the complete sympathy of complete detachment. Holroyd achieves the balance without any feeling of cool distance, because his own good sense and energy never flag. The result is a gem now safe from crazed abridgers.

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