Edition Matters

IMG_0100.jpgIn 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).

9780198709701.jpegThen 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.

9780198800538.jpegThat 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.



Classic Re-Reads: Sense and Sensibility

Even though I’m a pretty fast reader, reading classics takes time, (especially when one decides to tackle a beast like Anna Karenina). So here begins an occasional series of classics I’ve not only read and enjoyed, but re-read. These works are comfort novels for me; stories I revisit as comfort food.

When I decided to begin this series, the first novel that sprang to mind was Jane Austen’s Sense and Sensibility. Less famous than Pride and Prejudice, I think I prefer it. (Not that I don’t love P&P!). Oddly, I only have one copy of this, unless you count the kindle version. I guess I spent many years borrowing from one library or another.

IMG_0059.jpgSense and Sensibility was Austen’s first published novel. It follows the Dashwood sisters, Elinor, Marianne, and Margaret. At the beginning of the story, their father dies, and their half brother John inherits everything. Thanks to his greedy, selfish, social-climbing wife Fanny, the Dashwood women, which include their mother Mrs. Dashwood, find themselves unwelcome in their own home. John is convinced by his wife, in a scene that is equal parts hilarious and depressing, that his deathbed promise to his father to provide for his sisters and stepmother really just amounts to giving them a Christmas present now and again. So the women now face a future of relative poverty.

They move to a cottage owned by Mrs. Dashwood’s distant relative Sir John, although not before Fanny’s brother, Edward Ferrars, comes to stay at their old home and makes an impression on steady, responsible Elinor. At their new home, Marianne makes an impression on Colonel Brandon, a steady, responsible, honorable man she sees as old and boring. She prefers Willoughby, the dashing nephew and heir of a nearby estate owner.

Despite being romantic (obviously, it’s Jane Austen), the novel focuses on the relationship between the sisters. Elinor is the POV character; our impressions and observations are filtered through her. Both she and Marianne experience heartache and – almost – tragedy, and grow up a lot over the year or so the novel follows, learning not only to understand themselves better, but also to understand each other. Despite challenges, they grow closer and gain a deeper and more relationship as sisters. Of course, they get a happy ending with the guys, too. It IS Austen, after all.

The Sense and Sensibility of the title are, of course, Elinor and Marianne, and Austen examines the advantages and disadvantages of both attitudes. Marianne, dramatic and romantic to the extreme, thinks that nothing could be better than dying tragically of a broken heart. Her actions are modeled on the (then) new Romanticism, valuing emotion and feeling about rationality, and she eventually must learn to temper her wild emotion. But Elinor doesn’t escape growth either. She is quiet, steady, rational and hides her emotions as much as her sister shares them. But this nearly causes her to miss out on love. Thus Elinor must learn to be more demonstrative, to let others in, to share her feelings.


This novel also holds a special place in my heart because it’s the first real introduction I had to Austen’s work, through the 1996 film starring Emma Thompson as Elinor. Although personally I like the early 2000s BBC adaptation for most of the characters (Alan Rickman will always be Colonel Brandon to me), it is still a beautifully and carefully made adaptation, and I’ll always be grateful for the introduction to Austen that it provided.

But ultimately, despite the great plot and the history, Sense and Sensibility is a comfort re-read for me because of all of Austen’s heroines, it is Elinor with whom I most identify. She has helped me understand myself better. As a heroine, she is not as witty as Lizzy or as vibrant as Emma, and the heroes of this book, too, are quiet, even shy. But it’s nice to read about people that aren’t extroverts, or smoldering, fabulously rich gentlemen (I’m looking at you, Darcy). I like that Elinor is strong without being pushy or aggressive; she shows introvert me a quiet strength I feel like I can aspire to.


Film poster from wikipedia page; other image is mine.

January Classics

My classics goals for this year have shifted a little bit. Instead of reading “a majority” of classics (which, let’s face it, would be more than 50, which seems a little unrealistic), my 2018 goals are:

  • 1 classic a month
  • 1 early modern book a month

(and also 1 adult contemporary book every 2 months, but that doesn’t count for this blog.) (unless, you know, future classics?)


The early modern reading goal arises from my newly minted grad school focus on the early modern period in England, and the knowledge that I need to get my read on. Early modern, for those who are wondering, is roughly the 1500s through about 1660. Shakespeare, John Donne, Christopher Marlowe, Sir Philip Sidney, Thomas More . . . those guys. I’m concentrating on Shakespeare at the moment because he’s the subject of my thesis, but I’m trying to expand.

SO, in the interest of accountability, here’s my January books. I did actually meet my goals this month, and even exceed them, although all the books I read were slim, quick reads. I think I read the Cather and Shakespeare each in two days.


IMG_0028In A Glass Darkly Sheridan Le Fanu

I bought this book last summer in England, during my raid of the Oxford University Press bookstore. I love the Oxford Classics editions; they’re lovely, with that iconic red and white cover, inexpensive (relatively), and have great notes. The OUP bookstore (and Blackwell’s, one street over), usually have buy 1, get 1, or buy 2 get 1 deals, which is a great way to collect these books. I just have to limit myself, because, you know, they have to fit in my suitcase. Since I bought a bunch of them, and then proceeded to have a crazy fall and read exactly none, they’ll be frequent visitors this year.

I hope.

But you want me to tell you about the book, right? In a Glass Darkly is a collection of short stories published in 1872. They are framed as case files from the late Dr. Hessalius, a medical doctor with interests in psychological and (possibly) supernatural illness. Each story begins with the (unnamed) literary executor explaining where the story came from, giving each tale a “real world” anchor. There are five stories: the shorter “Green Tea,” “The Familiar” and “Mr. Justice Harbottle,” and the longer “The Room at the Dragon Volant” and “Carmilla.”

I began reading this book immediately, but put it down somewhere in the middle of “The Familiar” for several months. While I enjoyed all of the stories, I thought the first three were only okay. But the last two – OH BOY.

Le Fanu mostly writes Gothic fiction, and is a master at the “maybe it’s a ghost or maybe he’s hallucinating” kind of feint, an uncertainty which he makes plausible and not at all cheesy. “Dragon Volant” is a long story and took a little while to get into, but then I was so hooked. It is about an Englishman, Beckett, on tour in Europe and so ready for some kind of adventure, preferably one where he rescues a beautiful lady, and boy does he get what he wants. This turns out to be more like a mystery than a gothic or supernatural tale.

“Carmilla” is one of the first English vampire stories, and it’s a classic, and so well done, and that’s all I’m going to say because spoilers.

O Pioneers Willa Cather

IMG_0026This book, published in 1913 and set in Nebraska around the turn of the last century (it’s not really specified), is about Alexandra Bergson, who emigrated from Sweden with her family a number of years before the story opens. Despite having two older brothers and a younger one, it is Alexandra, with a head for business and an intuitive feel for the land, who takes over the family farm after her father dies when she’s a teenager. The story follows Alexandra and her family and friends through the next twenty years as she prospers financially and yet still experiences deep suffering in other ways.

Personally, I think My Ántonia is a better book, with a stronger coherency, but this critique makes sense as O Pioneers is one of Cather’s first books. You can tell she’s still figuring some things out. In particular, the plot feels uncertain for about the first third of the book, like a collection of sketches instead of a novel. That does not mean this isn’t still a great book, and the plot coheres eventually. I love Cather’s prose so much, and the way she makes the land almost a character in the book is beautiful. For instance, the first sentence of the book: “One January day, thirty years ago, the little town of Hanover, anchored on a windy Nebraska tableland, was trying not to be blown away.”

If you like contemporary fiction, but find most classics a struggle to read, try O Pioneers; despite being a hundred years old, in many ways its writing feels very contemporary.

Early Modern Books: 

 The Winter’s Tale by William Shakespeare

IMG_0025This play was first performed around 1611, late in Shakespeare’s career, and printed in 1623. It is about Leontes, the king of Sicily, who suddenly decides, for no good reason, that his best friend, the king of Bohemia, has been having an affair with Leontes’ wife Hermione. And Hermione is very pregnant. And Polixines, the friend, has been visiting for nine months. And they definitely (actually) did not have an affair.

Confused? It’s not you. This play is weird, and convoluted, and I love it. The first three acts are kind of uncomfortable because of Leontes’ accusations, but this gives Hermione and one of her ladies, Paulina, the chance to be strong and awesome. Then the action jumps 16 years, and suddenly there’s a happy ending. Time shows up.  Bohemia has a coast (it’s the (very landlocked) present-day Czech Republic). A guy is mauled by a bear (offstage). It’s so random, you just kind of have to go with it. Imagine it’s a fantasy, and it works much better.

Why do I like this play so much? I have no idea. Some of it is influenced by the Royal Ballet’s production, available on Amazon, which is so beautiful and which, stripped of the language, somehow helps the plot make sense. This is itself a little crazy, because the language in this play is amazing, too. I can’t quote my favorite line, because it’s a major spoiler, but here’s Paulina telling Leontes like it is: “I’ll not call you tyrant, / but this most cruel usage of your queen, / Not able to produce more accusation / Than your now weak-hinged fancy, something savors of tyranny” (2.3.115-119). Ouch.

So there you go. A lot of words about a few of the books I read in January. I’m quite pleased that I managed to meet, and even exceed, my new goals, although I know that may not last. I picked up Anna Karenina the other day, which is just . . . oh, boy. It’s so big. (I like it, but it’s so long). We’ll see how successful I am in February.


Also, it occurred to me that I could have taken prettier pictures. Something to aspire to next month, because I’m not re-taking these.