It is probably no surprise that I am somebody who thinks a olot about books — and not just what’s inside them. The story is my main interest, but it doesn’t stop there.
Just about everything about books intrigues me. Book and cover design, typesetting and typefaces, publishing history in general and editorial history in particular. So for example I have more than one edition of Pride and Prejudice, some of them quite odd and old picked up at flea markets.
I was in college before I started to think much about different editions of the same book. Tom Sawyer was Tom Sawyer, whether he appeared on pulp paper or in a hideously expensive leather bound volume. It made no difference to me which edition I read, as long as it wasn’t abridged. Then I started taking literature courses and my outlook changed. I remember when I was told for the first time that I could only use the critical edition to write a paper, and the idea caught my attention right off. A critical edition is one that has been put together by a scholar who specializes in the work of the author in question. A good critical edition is true to the original, earliest editions, and will include notes on the original manuscript as well. For example, if the author kept changing one sentence back and forth from edition to edition. There will also be cultural and contextual notes — what was going on in the world when the book was being written, how it was received, how it fit into the author’s career and life.
All that and more belongs in a good critical edition. And after so many years of higher education, I am a footnote junkie. I do love me a big overstuffed detail ridden critical edition.
Some fifteen years ago or so I started noticing how big bookstores and publishers in general put out new editions of the classics on a regular basis. I remember once being in a store where a table was stacked with copies of Dickens, Austen, Cooper, and every other big name you can think of. Three bucks each or six for fifteen dollars. Printed on the worst kind of paper, shoddily put together. When my daughter was a little younger she used to pick up these books and ask for them, and she was always surprised when I refused.
I don’t buy used books — if the book is in print, and the author is alive, I buy it new. that’s a solidarity thing and also just plain common sense. If we are to survive as scribblers, we’ve got to support each other. On the other hand, I feel no obligation to buy new when it comes to authors who are dead for hundreds of years (unless it’s a critical edition, in which case the editor deserves to earn something). So when the Girl wanted a copy of the Odyssey, I went to a good used book store and looked until I found an edition from 1950, solidly put together, good quality paper, no obvious short cuts in production or editing.
Now publishers will tell you that they put out the classics in cheap form to make them available to a greater audience, but I don’t believe that. I think it’s an attempt to boost the bottom line, and in this day and age when publishers struggle, I can see why they’d try this. I still don’t think it’s right, but I can see it as a business decision. So if the Girl needs a copy of Jane Eyre or Adam Bede or the complete works of Voltaire, I will go find her a critical edition, often used. Which critical edition depends on the circumstances, but if you’re really interested have a look at Bookworm’s post on this question. She looked at four paperback critical editions of Jane Eyre: Penguin Classics, Modern Library Classics, Oxford World’s Classics, and Norton Critical Edition.