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How to have success reading classic novels by picking the right edition
Many of us want to read better, we crave reading better, but every time we try, it seems that something sets us up to fail.
I have been haunting bookstores and libraries my entire life. I have two coffee thermoses from Amazon that we sent to me in that company’s early days as a thank you for being such a good customer. You know, back when Amazon was a bookstore.
I also have had more college and graduate level English classes than a normal person should have. A lot more.
And even I have trouble picking out classic novels online, whether I’m on a bookstore or library webpage. There are far too many options available and no explanation to clearly tell you what the differences are. On top of that, because many of these books are in the public domain, anyone can put up digital editions on Amazon, and many people do just that.
What I find particularly annoying is that Amazon will list what appears to be a Kindle version of a legitimate publisher’s text, such as Signet, that turns out to be just some random. All I can say is “caveat emptor”. Use your sense. If the paper version of a public domain book is $10 and the Kindle version is $1, you aren’t getting the same edition.
Reading a classic is enough of a challenge; there is no benefit to reading a copy that doesn’t help you, and in fact, can be so badly converted to digital format that it hinders you…or is incomplete. You can also go wrong by paying too much for an edition that is full of supporting material you don’t want or need.
If you want to read more “classic” books, here is a guide to helping you get the copy that is right for you by helping you assess your needs. I’ve included samples of each type of book in the form of Pride and Prejudice because. as one of the most popular books in the public domain, there are numerous editions and almost every major publisher has at least one version in their catalog.
Here’s a simple quiz to help you figure out which edition of classic novels (and other books) are right for you.
If I haven’t listed a publisher you see, I’m not familiar with it or I think it’s sketchy. This article focuses on quality editions widely available in the U.S.; there are even more different editions available in the U.K., and of course it’s possible that you may find individual copies that have traveled across the Atlantic (or anywhere) either way.
Scenario (taken from my own life): You feel that you did not value Jane Austen when you were forced to read her in high school, and you decide to give her another try as an adult. You start with Amazon, because they have everything. Due to their marketing practices, you see a long list of books that you can tell from the covers are junky or weird.
Before giving up and heading over to the bestseller list (which Amazon is probably fine with), try the questionnaire below to figure out what you need.
When you are ready, if you are still on Amazon, put the title of the book you want along with the publisher you want in the search box, or use Amazon’s “advanced search” feature that has a box for the publisher. At publication time, the “advanced search” button is second from the left on the gray bar at the top of the “Amazon” page.
1. How comfortable are you with reading this book?
If you have read this author before or are an experienced reader, you may not need or want much help. So you might be happiest with a digital (e-book) version of the book or with a very simple paperback, depending on what you like to read.
Dover Thrift: You will get a simple book that is correct, easy to read, and low cost. There will be no footnotes, introduction, or back matter.
The book is not really designed to stand up to repeated readings, so schools or libraries do not usually buy these editions, and it’s not for you if you like to reread or are going to need to make a study of the book.
Electronic version at Project Gutenberg: You will get an e-book that is correct and complete. You will possibly get a very nice original copy with illustrations. Project Gutenberg is always free and requires no log in. The books are uploaded by volunteers (sometimes participating libraries) and checked before they are put online.
Hint: Scroll down and check the “notes” box to make sure you are getting the nicest edition. The one with the most downloads is not necessarily the nicest; newer versions of the book will have fewer downloads.
All the cheap Kindle versions you see on Amazon were probably made from a Project Gutenberg download by people trying to make a quick buck. You have no way to tell. If you get something that’s obviously bad, Amazon will refund your money, but who wants the hassle?
Remember that you can easily look up words you don’t know using the dictionary feature on your Kindle, but Kindles aren’t very good at providing background information, especially because there will be cases where you won’t even realize you need help.
Pride and Prejudice at Project Gutenberg
2. Do you like some extra information, or do you feel you need it?
If you like to have some background information but don’t want to feel overwhelmed, Signet, Vintage, and Penguin all have enough information but not too much. I personally have owned many Signet Classics paperbacks over the years because I find them a good balance of quality and price. Information that a modern reader wouldn’t automatically know will usually be footnoted.
Penguin Books are famous for first bringing out cheap, paperback versions of the classics for average people to read, so they deserve a shout-out for that. They do have several different lines of classic books, so make sure you are getting a book from a series that has what you want.
Usually the lower the cost, the less background material there will be, but there are also more sometimes more expensive versions marketed for their design, which is fine if you are into that. You just want to know before you buy.
Below I’ve shown a good standard version from Penguin that has reasonable information and support.
3. Do you like a lot of extra information?
If you really like to dig deep, then spend the extra for an Oxford edition or go for broke completely and get a Norton Critical Edition.
Oxford World Classics are designed for university level study, meaning people majoring in English or studying literature at the graduate level. Even if you are not a student or scholar, the extra information can be a lot of fun if you are reading a favorite.
Oxford World Classics (below) cost more than Penguin or Signet because of all that extra information, so there is no reason to purchase one if you aren’t interested.
If you really want to go deep, get a Norton Critical Edition. I love these because I feel like I’m holding a whole course on the text in my hand. If the thought of that doesn’t excite you, this book isn’t for you, but they are fascinating if you are really into the book. A lot extra articles and support material can be found in other places, but figuring out what to find and finding can take a lot of time. Norton editions will also include correspondence and other supporting material from the author that may not be in print elsewhere. These editions are expensive and extensive but a great value for the amount of information they include. They are really intended for people who are going to teach the text or for a class that is making an in-depth study of it.
4. Are you going to read a book in translation?
Whether a book was originally written in English or was translated into English may not be the first thing you consider, but actually it should be. The age and quality of a translation can have a huge impact on your experience as a reader. You want to check that out particularly if you are downloading a public domain version because you may have an extremely outdated translation that is difficult to get through. Or you may get a copy that is a paraphrase or “update” of an old translation.
Translating a book is like making a rough copy. The translator has to choose the words that, in his or her opinion, best fit the author’s original meaning and try to get the phrasing right as well. That’s a really tough task, especially when the language and culture of the book is quite different from English/western culture. In many cases, there is no word in English that is a direct translation.
Once I was teaching a Japanese book in translation to a group of bilingual English/Japanese speakers, so I allowed the students to reference a Japanese copy of the book. One day, we had a 20 minute discussion of a mention of a “black liquid” in the English edition. When my students looked at the Japanese version, they found out that the Japanese word referenced a very specific thing that doesn’t exist outside of Japan, so there was no English word. The whole discussion, however, was moot.
The best thing to do is Google “best translation of…” for the book you are interested in and see what you find. You might have to check out a couple for yourself by using the samples on book websites such as Amazon.
Here’s a blog post on “the best translation of War and Peace” to give you an idea of how subjective selecting a work in translation can be, but imagine have to slog through such a long novel with one that gives you trouble!
5. Should You buy a fancy copy?
If you like to get “collector’s” hardback copies of books, go for it. I’m not sure why they are called “collectible” because they aren’t ever going to be worth money. The content is in the public domain, and if the book is a classic, there are loads of editions around.
Also keep in mind that 100% of the proceeds of these books are going to the publishers. If you spend the same amount, and usually less, on an Oxford, Norton, or Signet, you are putting some money in some poor academic’s pocket who is probably still paying off college loans from the 80’s. I’m just saying.
If you like the books, however, go for them. It’s all about what you enjoy, and they are a good bargain because, again, no royalties are paid on the material.
More and more companies, such as Penguin and Barnes & Noble, are making a range of different collections for different readers and aesthetics. Any paper version you find from a reputable publisher or in a bookstore is just fine as long as you are clear on whether you want support material or not.
Frankly, I think Barnes & Noble are the best at the “collectible” books; I’m working on becoming an affiliate for them so I can show them to you!
Just absolutely, positively stay away from the cheap e-book copies. If you feel like giving away a couple of bucks, donate them to Project Gutenberg. The article on Project Gutenberg (above) tells you exactly what to do. You will be surprised how simple it is.
Classics in 2021 and Beyond
There are a couple of publishers, such as Library of America and Everyman’s Library, who are more interested in packaging public domain material in different ways to appeal to new buyers than in offering criticism or support. I personally don’t care for these much because I don’t want to have to carry around 3 novels to read 1, but they can be a great deal if you really like the author or the author published a lot of short works, which may not be available on paper in any other format.
If the author is in the public domain, just be aware that you can probably find all kinds of short works online if you enjoy rooting around. Just search the author’s name on Project Gutenberg.
If you don’t, these are a perfect alternative and frankly, I do enjoy browsing them.
James Baldwin is a big jump from Jane Austen, but this volume is a perfect example of how Library of America puts together a lot of short writings from an author that might be difficult or expensive to find elsewhere…and James Baldwin isn’t even in the public domain!
These publishers have also moved into grouping stories by theme instead of author or publishing very small “curated” excerpts of work for a dollar. All good, all legitimate.
Penguin in particular has a range of types, from very basic to academic to fancy “collector’s” books. If you are shopping online, just pay attention to what you’re ordering so you don’t have to go through the hassle of a return.
If all else fails, Google “Amazon customer service” and contact them. They make it a bit tricky to contact them, but once you do, they are good about refunds for faulty digital media.
Good luck, and I’ll be back with more information on this topic. Follow me through e-mail subscription or on Facebook to be sure you don’t miss out!