For some time now I have been lusting after Encyclopedia Britannica’s Great Books of the Western World (GBWW) set—60 matching hardbound volumes comprising 517 works by 130 authors—but the hefty price tag ($1,200) and monumental size of the set (5 feet of shelf space) have been an effective antidote to my cupidity. It does have some things going for it: it includes a two volume guide to” the great ideas,” called The Syntopicon, which traces the development of thought on various topics throughout the works in the set and elsewhere; and the set probably costs less than buying each work individually, especially in hardcover.
As for The Syntopicon, it appears as though the Center for the Study of the Great Ideas is in the process of making it available online (see Happiness; click the links for the references). Although it does (usually) indicate which part/volume/chapter/canto/act/scene/etc. to look up, the page numbers it gives are obviously from the GBWW set. In some cases, especially modern works, there isn’t so much as a chapter indicated, making it difficult to look up the relevant passage in any edition other than the GBWW. However, syntopical reading, according to Adler, is an advanced approach to the great books (so, I’ll cross that bridge when I come to it), and he does give detailed instructions in How to Read a Book on how to find and sift through works that address a particular issue. The Syntopicon lays it all out for you on a platter, but there’s nothing stopping a reader from creating his or her own syntopical reading program, and in fact one might learn more and develop better learning skills that way.
After my epiphany I naturally went online in search of anthologies. Much to my delight there are a variety of anthologies available, covering world, Western, English, Canadian, and women’s literature (among other groupings). But the question, as always, is which editions are the best? No, I don’t propose to buy one of each and compare them. (Who would do a silly thing like that…?) In fact there are only three areas with in-print competition: world, women’s, and English literature. Of course Norton figures prominently, but there are two newer contenders I hadn’t heard of, Longman and Bedford. Here are the particulars:
(all are paperbacks except where noted)
Anthologies of World Literature
Anthologies of Women’s Literature
Anthologies of English Literature
Norton Anthology of English Literature
2005 (8th edition, to be released October 1)
6 volumes available individually, in two sets, or in two volumes (the latter in paper or cloth)
??pp (7th edition was 5800pp)
Now begins the task of finding out what separates these volumes. Norton doesn’t always publish the number of pages in its anthologies, so I can’t easily compare them with the others in terms of length. In world literature the Longman exceeds the Bedford by more than a thousand pages, but there’s no way of telling where the Norton stands. In women’s literature it’s the Norton that is significantly longer, although the thematically arranged Longman might make for interesting (and syntopical!) reading. In English literature there is a major difference in content: the Longman Anthology of British Literature is, as the name suggests, limited to British literature, whereas the Norton has recently branched out to include literature from all parts of the English-speaking world. On the other hand, a quick glance at Norton’s TOC shows that they have included some Alice Munro but no Atwood. If that is their idea of international representation then I should probably take another look at the Longman and look elsewhere for Commonwealth literature.
For the record I’ll mention that there are two notable out of print anthologies, the Oxford Anthology of English Literature (1973) and the Longman Anthology of Western Literature (2003). There is no information about them online, though, and I think I will just leave well enough alone!
If anyone out there has any strong opinions about these anthologies, please let me know so I don’t have to slog through the lengthy tables of contents trying to tell the difference!
UPDATE—I misspoke when I said the Oxford Anthology of English Literature is out of print. It is still available; it just hasn’t been revised since I was in diapers. And after sleuthing around I have deduced that the Norton Anthology of World Literature is roughly 6,000 pages. Whoah. Even so, it seems to be lacking in Latin American literature (my peops!), but I’m sure there’s an anthology for that somewhere…
UPDATE II—It looks like Longman will be releasing the thirdedition of its anthology of British literature just in time for Christmas. As an added bonus is it less expensive (though about the same size) as the second edition.
As for the cost (or savings) of the GBWW set it does not follow that one must buy a book to study and profit from it. Since reading (most of) The Well-Educated Mind and leafing through How to Read a Book, I have become (almost) convinced that by reading carefully and taking the proper notes, I don’t actually need to own a book to know it. Although the authors of both those guides are fans of underlining and writing in books, it seems a bit redundant to underline a passage in a book and then proceed to copy or refer to it in my commonplace book. And I must be realistic: unless I win the lottery, I have far better things to spend my money on than a few hundred books I might only read once or twice, if at all. Pretty well all of these books are available online now, so if I ever need to look something up I can do a quick text search online, which, aside from being free, has the advantage of being much faster than searching through a printed volume.
I have to admit, though, that there is something comforting about the idea and the reality of having a wide selection of great literature in my own home that I can pick up and enjoy on a whim. Last night as I was
agonizing over pondering this issue, a compromise solution occurred to me: anthologies! Even as a science student I couldn’t help notice the hefty Norton anthologies lugged around by English majors in first year, and later when my grandmother bequeathed me her library I acquired her dog-eared fifth edition Norton Anthology of English Literature. There is something about the onion skin pages and breadth of content that I find very appealing. So why not make anthologies the cornerstone of my library, or even my reading plan? Learned editors have gone through a lot of trouble to collect a sampling of the greatest literature of all time, so why not let them guide me? If a particular work interests me I can always go borrow or buy it, but in the mean time I won’t be weighed down with a pile of books I may never read. And needless to say, anthologies are far less expensive and far more compact than the GBWW.