Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Good editions, bad editions

My friend Amy of Sunlit Pages requested that I write something about good vs. bad editions.  I guess I do tend to talk about editions a lot; for me, a good edition can add a lot to the plain text of a classic, and a bad edition can spoil my reading experience.  However, I’m not sure how qualified I am to write about editions of classic literature, seeing as I’ve only been reading them for a few months now.  Can anyone else jump in here?  Amy is looking for advice about good editions before starting to purchase them herself.

I can say that I've had really great luck with Penguin, Modern Library Classics, Oxford, and Everyman editions.  The quality of the books themselves is pretty decent, and the introductory material and endnotes have always added to my reading experience.  These essays and notes have been very helpful in pointing out themes within the literature as well as placing the novel in its historical and biographical context - for example, the Everyman Gaskell edition I'm in the middle of always points out the source of her quotes.  I also love Puffin Classics when I’m buying kids books (Puffin is a subdivision of Penguin), but you have to make sure to check the back cover because a lot of the Puffin editions are abridged versions of longer classics - perfect for kids, perhaps, but less useful if you're an adult trying to get your hands on, say, the complete unabridged Robinson Crusoe.

Signet Classics are small and very cheap, which can be nice, and they make for great airplane books because they’ll easily fit in a purse.  Their text is small, as is the spacing between lines, and they tend to have little to no margin space.  Thus I find them a little bit wearing on my eyes, and there's no space to write comments.  I used to buy these a lot, but have recently started to prefer editions that present not only the book itself, but also added material by literature scholars, because I’m not a literature scholar and appreciate their insights.

I am by no means the only book blogger out here to extol the virtues of the Virago and Persephone presses, both of which specialize in overlooked novels by women.  One of the nice things about these books is how recognizable they are on a shelf – just like you can always tell a Penguin edition from the little orange penguin on the spine, Virago and Persephone books are easy to spot because their covers are hunter green and silver, respectively.  I think some of the Virago editions are actual reprints of the original publications – their fonts are unusual and their margins wider than is common today.  The obvious reminder that you’re reading a historical classic really adds something to the book’s atmosphere, I think.

I have tended to steer clear of Barnes and Noble editions, because I really disliked their edition of Peter Pan.  It had both footnotes and endnotes, and while the endnotes were decent, the footnotes insisted on defining really elementary words.  I couldn’t avoid reading the footnotes, and so they ended up being both distracting and even a bit belittling.  I suspect that any kid reading Peter Pan would already know what these words meant.  This being said, I recently purchased a used B&N edition of D.H. Lawrence’s Lady Chatterley’s Lover, which didn’t seem to have the same issue.  And Allie of A Literary Odyssey seems to adore B&N editions, so they’re not universally derided.

On occasion I’ve bought unknown, old editions from used book sales.  These have left me feeling a bit let-down, because they’re full of typos and, if in translation, don’t even list who translated them.  One secret to avoiding this trouble is to check the back of the title page.  A decent edition will not only list the year that this edition was published, but also list the year in which the book originally came out.  My two poor editions didn’t give the original publication date, which was annoying since I like to have some idea of the historical context as I read a classic.

The best advice I can give when starting to think about all of the various editions of classics would be to try a few from the library.  That way you can see whether you like an edition or not without spending any money first.  Bear in mind that no set of editions is going to have the same quality throughout – for example, I loved the introductory essay in the Penguin Classics hardcover version of Jane Eyre, but I found the essay in the Penguin Classics hardcover version of Lady Chatterley’s Lover to be seriously problematic both in terms of content and grammar.  If you’re out shopping at a bookstore, particularly a sizeable used bookstore where there are several options, flip through a few different editions.  There are a few questions I always ask myself.  Has this book been written in or highlighted?  (If so, I almost always pass it up, although not everyone may be as finicky as me.)  Is the text really small?  What about the margins – are they wide enough that your eye doesn’t have to read from edge to edge?  Are they wide enough to take notes, if I felt like writing comments to myself for the next time I read it?  Are there footnotes or endnotes, and if so, are they useful and informative?  Is there an introductory or concluding essay, and if so, who is it by and what are the author’s credentials?  What is the condition of the covers and spine – torn, cracked, weathered, sticky from the removal of a “used” sticker?  And finally, what is the price?  (A really cheap price can sometimes make up for a less-than-perfectly-satisfactory quality, when you’re on a tight student budget like me.)

I’m sure a lot of you book bloggers have a lot more experience with editions than I do.  Do you have any additional advice to share?  Do you have a favorite publisher?  Do you try to collect all of your classics in the same edition, or do you have a whole bunch of different editions like I do, from buying books one by one at different book sales?


  1. As I mentioned on your post yesterday, Everyman's editions are my favorites. They're just the right size, the typeface and white space are perfect, and there's a ribbon bookmark. I also tend to buy Penguins and Oxford World Classics.

    I also enjoy the Persephones and Viragos, partly because of how recognizable they are. I have found that some of the older green Viragos suffer from terrible typesetting. I'd add New York Review Books to that list of well-produced classics with a distinctive look.

    I don't usually go by the supplementary essays, only because the quality varies so much within a single line, and I can't know until I have the book itself. The Norton Critical Editions can be really great if you want a lot of that kind of material--it's usually more than I want, but it's a nice option.

  2. Wow! That is what I call a prompt response! You wrote this post, what, an hour after I asked you about it? Thank you so much! This is perfect and definitely gives me some things to become more aware of and look out for in the next few months. I just need to become more familiar with the different editions themselves, and you're right, the library is the perfect resource for that. Then I can know exactly what I like before purchasing (or, I'll know what I should snatch up if I see it at a used bookstore). Thanks again for your thoroughness and knowledge. I know I'll be coming back to this post again and again.

    1. Oh, wow, was it really that quick? I saw it in the morning, and started writing you a quick response in the comments, and it got big enough that I put it an an actual post. I appreciate your asking me - it was really nice to think this through.

      I second Teresa's recommendation of New York Review books - the ones I've read have been very pretty, felt great in my hands, and seemed durable.

      I love the library! And I know you do too. :-) Perhaps the next time you go to pick up some books for your kids, you could pick up an edition (or two or three) of a classic you like to compare the different versions?