Edition Dilemma

In Cold Mountain, Ada makes some disparaging comments about George Eliot’s Adam Bede, and as I had a copy sitting on my bookshelf waiting to be read, I decided to find out what she was talking about. Ignoring Susan Wise-Bauer‘s advice to read the text first, I started with the lengthy and scholarly Introduction in my Penguin Classics edition of the book. I was impressed with the (potential) usefulness of the Further Reading section, and the Notes at the back are providing even more context and leads for further study.

This has got me wondering which classics series is the best for this sort of extra material. When I am in the used book store, faced with five different editions of the same classic, which should I chose? I revisited my post on the Modern Library and looked up both that series and the Oxford World Classics, as well as the Penguin Classics which dominate my bookshelves. In my searching I also discovered the Norton Critical Editions, which I hadn’t encountered before. I compared four editions of Jane Eyre, using amazon’s handy search feature. Each imprint has something different to offer, apart from the obligatory introduction and notes.

The Norton Critical Edition (534 pp) has a Preface rather than an introduction (not the author’s preface), and instead of notes has an 80-page section called Contexts, which appears (this book is not searchable on amazon) to present snippets from Brontë’s letters and other information on her personal and professional lives. The Criticism section, which gives the series its name, has six (in the case of Jane Eyre) critical essays spanning 60 pages. The book finishes with A Chronology and Selected Bibliography.

The Modern Library edition intrigues me because of the Commentary section which puts the book in the context of the intellectual and artistic life of the time. It is also by far the most lengthy, but the lack of a bibliography concerns me (although it’s possible that references are incorporated by the introduction). The Oxford World Classics website gives the most information about their approach and features, and the Oxford reputation carries a lot of weight with me (plus I feel culturally more at home with English rather than American sources—they don’t call this British Columbia for nothing!). Penguin, though more ubiquitous than the other series, seems to have the least to offer (other than one-stop shopping). The Norton Critical Edition, on the other hand, provides the widest variety of extra information, but costs about 50% more than the others. It also lacks the scope of the other series, with only about a hundred titles of British fiction in print.

Of course what really matters is the editing and the scholarship of the extra material, and there is only one way to compare that. I propose to obtain a copy of each edition of Jane Eyre and see if one stands out above the rest. This will accomplish two goals: one, I will know which series suits me best; and two, I will have three more books (or four, counting my plain jane Signet Classics edition) to release and track with BookCrossing!


Here are a couple of articles about the classics publishing business, with more information and opinions about the series mentioned here.

Classic Strategy: Penguin Classics gets a makeover
(get username/password from BugMeNot)

Publishers Give Classics a Makeover

(Gee, wonder if Penguin used the word “makeover” in their press release?)

The Modern Library Classics edition (752 pp) includes a Commentary section which reproduces comments on the work by other notable authors. In the case of Jane Eyre, we have opinions from William Makepeace Thackeray (to whom the book was dedicated), George Eliot, G.K. Chesterton, Virgina Woolf, George Saintsbury, Elizabeth Rigby, Anthony Trollope, and even the author herself. There is also a Reading Group Guide, which is the same as the Reading Guides available on the Modern Library website.

The Oxford World Classics edition (544 pp) includes a Note on the Text, Select Bibliography, A Chronology of Charlotte Bronte, and an appendix with Opinions of the Press (as printed at the end of the third edition). The Penguin Classics edition (576 pp) has the least additional materials, namely a Note on the Text and Selected Further Reading.


4 comments on “Edition Dilemma

  1. Stefanie says:

    I used the Norton edition of Jane Eyre in a college class many years ago and still have it and have read it a few times since. Norton makes a good read but they are much more expensive than all of the others. I think the choice of edition ultimately depends on what your reading plans are–if you want to do a study then you want something with lots of additional information. But if you are choosing to read the book just for the pleasure of it just enough information to give it context if sufficient. At least that's how I currently go about it. I will be interested in hearing about your thoughts on the different editions.

  2. Sylvia says:

    Ya, the Norton was the only one I couldn't find at a reasonable price used. Even hardcovers in the other editions can be had for less.
    Like you said, I think I'll want different editions for different purposes. I'll probably want to get my favourites in durable hardcover editions, and everything else in an affordable paperbacks with enough study aids so I have the option of going deeper. I think I will still end up with some Penguins just because of their availability. And I won't deny that I'm looking to create a little visual harmony on my bookshelves. Even three different series would be an improvement over the dog's breakfast currently occupying my fiction shelves!

  3. Susan says:

    Dare I confess that I usually select the Modern Library Classics simply because I can still read them without glasses? Font size has become a top priority with me, not because I'm too shallow to wear reading glasses, but because I'm paranoid I'll lose them.

  4. Sylvia says:

    Readability/legibility is one of Susan Wise Bauer's main criteria for choosing a particular edition of a work. If you're going to do a lot of reading, why not do it the easy way? Makes sense to me.

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