In this post, a list of tips for reading classics, one of the points I make is that edition matters. Never has this been made more clear to me than this weekend.
I have been reading Anna Karenina, slowly, at a snail’s pace, ten pages here, twenty there, for more than two weeks, and was on page 150 or so. Now, this pace has nothing to do with my level of interest in the story. Almost from the first page, I’ve been intrigued by and drawn into this interesting world that Tolstoy portrays. I like the book. I think about it when I’m not reading it. I want to read it.
And yet, I wasn’t reading it.
This weekend, because of President’s Day (which isn’t even a post holiday anymore, let alone a school holiday, but is nevertheless a good excuse to issue coupons and encourage consumerism), I went to the bookstore, in possession of a coupon that gave me 40% off an item of my choice. I don’t usually use the deals I’m emailed, not even for books, preferring to buy used, especially for classics. But 40% off meant I could get a lovely edition of something (hardcover, cloth-bound, or deluxe edition, I dreamed immediately). So off to the bookstore I went.
Of course, as I immediately remembered, this particular chain bookstore (the only US national one, guess which?) has a habit of only stocking its own version of the classics, a version I find particularly ugly, and only buy if I have to. Beautiful editions of classic works were few and far between, and most were of books I already own and don’t want a second copy of (David Copperfield, The Tenant of Wildfell Hall).
Then I found the Oxford hardcovers. The first one appeared with the Dostoyevsky books, a red, cloth-bound version of Crime and Punishment featuring a minimalistic axe on the front.
But I didn’t want a Dostoyevsky, because The Brothers Karamazov has been languishing, unread, on my bookshelves since time immemorial (seriously, I don’t remember when I bought it), and I didn’t want to add C&P to that party. So I kept wandering, and between the “D” and the “T” section was mostly a wasteland.
And there it was, at eye level, in the “T’s”: Anna Karenina, in the Oxford clothbound, a beautiful blue hardback with a paler blue fan and the title dripping down like ribbon. I tried to talk myself out of it, and failed. It came home with me.
That night I read a hundred pages. A hundred.
It was about more than the aesthetics, too. The book, weighty as it is, felt comfortable in my hand. The pages open easily. The font is well-spaced and comfortable to read. I lost track of time in the book instead of counting the number pages I had left until the next chapter.
This is my conclusion: edition matters.
Spring for the lovely books, the aesthetic books, but also get those books that not only feature helpful notes and annotations and introductions, but also (or instead, even) offer a pleasurable reading experience. I wonder how many classics I have struggled to read simply because the cheap edition was subtly fighting against my eyes? I wonder if students would like the books we ask them to read better if we gave them beautiful, readable editions instead of the tiny Signets and Dovers with the minuscule font and no spacing?
I don’t know the answer. I just know that thanks to my purchase, I have a hope of finishing Anna Karenina before the month ends.
The images of the covers are from the OUP website: https://global.oup.com/academic/content/series/o/oxford-worlds-classics-hardback-collection-owch/?cc=us&lang=en&
If you’re interested in the Oxford Hardcover series, which really is lovely, and contains the insides of their very good paperback World’s Classics series, it looks like aside from the Dostoyevsky and Tolstoy (including War and Peace), there’s an Austen, a Shelley, and several short story and fairytale collections. I hope they add more in the future! I would certainly be interested in adding them to my collection.
Also, here’s a comparison of the insides of my two copies of Anna. The Oxford is on the top, the cheap old bookstore-released edition is on the left. The differences are subtle, to be sure, but that’s my point – a little change matters a lot. I flipped to a page in the middle at random, and they happened to be a similar layout, which is convenient. Also, you’ll notice how much more nicely the Oxford lays open.