Paperback Classics

‘Tis the season to tie up loose ends for the year and to that end I have completed my quest to determine which editions of the classics I should choose when making additions to my library (see Edition Dilemma). I already went through the hardcovers and now it’s the paperbacks’ turn.

I looked at four paperback editions of Jane Eyre: Penguin Classics, Modern Library Classics, Oxford World’s Classics, and Norton Critical Edition. In terms of physical form, the Norton Critical Edition wins hands down. The typeface is beautiful, the paper is wonderfully smooth and creamy, the binding is solid, and the elongated shape is pleasingly different. The Modern Library edition is also very legible with it’s large type, an important consideration for those with less than perfect vision. However both it and the Penguin are a bit too floppy for easy one-handed reading. The Oxford’s type is a hair larger than the Penguin and has much sturdier paper that doesn’t force you to read on a curve.

All four editions vary greatly in the amount and kind of supporting material they include. The Modern Library edition has the least extra material, comprising a biographical sketch, short introduction, notes (which I will cover in more detail below), “Commentary,” and a reading group guide. The reading group guide is available at the Modern Library website, so that is no reason to buy this book. The “Commentary” section consists of comments on the book by other famous writers and critics such as William Makepeace Thackeray, Virginia Woolf, and Anthony Trollope. As fun as it was to read opinions on Jane Eyre from such illustrious sources, it didn’t really add anything to my understanding of the book.

The Penguin Classics edition has a long introduction, a brief note on the text, further reading, and extensive notes. The introduction seemed to be trying too hard to say something “new” about Jane Eyre and was more interested in reviewing past criticism of the text than in examining the text itself. Moreover I found myself disagreeing with practically everything the editor said. The “further reading” also seems to steer the reader more towards a tour of past criticism of the novel than to resources that would help one form one’s own opinions.

The supporting material in the Oxford World Classics edition is definitely a cut above. The introduction is thorough, the note on the text is very detailed, and the bibliography is well-balanced between context and criticism. The detailed, 6-page chronology is very helpful since it lists important historical and cultural events beside the events in Charlotte Brontë’s life; I consider this a major highlight of this edition. The appendix includes the notes and seven pages of press reviews from when book was first published. Like the “Commentary” section in the Modern Library edition, this was interesting but not particularly helpful.

The Norton Critical Edition is in a class by itself, and is intended not for the recreational reader but for the college student. It contains a whopping 150 pages of extra material, about half of which is context and half of which is criticism. The context section consists of original sources such as letters, juvenilia, and diary entries that give a sense of the life and personality of Charlotte Brontë and the development of Jane Eyre. The criticism section has several essays by various critics offering different points of view, and even includes two short essays on film adaptations of Jane Eyre. There is enough here to write a term paper. The bibliography is also good but the author chronology is far too brief.

For me, one of the most important considerations is the explanatory notes. The Modern Library has the fewest (92), the Norton Critical edition does better with 205 notes, and the Oxford World Classics and Penguin Classics are evenly matched at 407 and 412 notes respectively. They all explain biblical allusions, northern English idioms, and all except the Modern Library edition also explain literary and cultural allusions.

The Oxford World Classics edition offers the most background for allusions, for example, including Bible quotations where other editions merely give the reference. It also suggests which real life places or people might be the models for settings and characters in the novel. The Penguin edition includes critical opinions (sometimes lengthy) which I find rather intrusive and is, for me, another mark against the Penguin. Both the Penguin and Oxford offer more non-idiomatic word definitions than the other editions.

The Norton has intentionally kept its notes to a minimum, and they tend to be quite brief, with the expectation that a student should be able to look up standard English words, bible passages, and details on literary allusions. This would be inconvenient for a reader who didn’t want haul a college-level dictionary, a bible, and a literature companion around with them as they read this book, but since I do my reading at home and enjoy looking things up, this is not much of a deterrent for me. The best part about the Norton notes, however is that they are footnotes!! I loathe, hate, and despise endnotes and think they should be outlawed. The footnotes alone might induce me to invest in the Norton.

Overall my preference (if you hadn’t already guessed) is for the Norton because of it’s aesthetics and because it respects our intelligence enough to let us look things up and form our own opinions based on the text and the original sources included in the volume. Unfortunately this sort of quality doesn’t come cheap, and the Norton is the most expensive of the bunch.

Current prices on
Norton Critical Edition: $15.22
Penguin Classics: $12.00
Modern Library: $9.56
Oxford World’s Classics: not available, but is approx. $8.08 CDN at

There are two other drawbacks to the Norton. A minor one is that that author chronology is nowhere near as good as the one in the Oxford, especially in terms of cultural and historical context, but that is something that can easily be looked up. A more serious problem is that Norton’s catalogue is very limited, with fewer than 200 titles, compared to roughly 500 Modern Library Classics, 700 Oxford World’s Classics, and over a thousand Penguin Classics titles. So in cases where a title is not available from Norton, my second choice is the Oxford World’s Classics for it’s quality supporting material and sturdy construction.


A note for the Slaves of Golconda: The Picture of Dorian Gray is available in paperback in a Norton Critical Edition (which contains two versions of the work; ISBN 0393955680) as well as an Oxford World’s Classics edition (0192833650), and in hardcover from Modern Library Classics (0679600019).

Publisher websites:

Norton Critical Edition

Oxford World Classics

Penguin Classics

Modern Library Classics


7 comments on “Paperback Classics

  1. Stefanie says:

    I'm a Norton fan too but the expense is a deterrent. I find Nortons used sometimes but they are also usually marked up from the previous owner(s).
    Thanks for the analysis, very useful 🙂

  2. Sylvia says:

    You're welcome. Along with outlawing endnotes I as Queen of the Universe would also make it illegal to sell novels with highlighting, underlining, or comments for more than two dollars. I might allow pencil, but that's it!

  3. Daniel says:

    Thanks for writing this comparison between publishers! I've been searching the Internet for a comparison since I'm looking for a copy of David Copperfield, and it's surprising that few bloggers have addressed this issue the way you have!
    Also, I agree on the superiority of footnotes vs. endnotes. Nothing ruins a reading experience more than needing to keep two bookmarks in the same book and flipping back and forth every two paragraphs.

  4. Pacze Moj says:

    Another “Thank You”:
    The internet sure has a lot of stuff, but it's rare to find something better than what I was looking for!

  5. Sylvia says:

    I'm glad you found the post useful. You might be interested in my post on the new Oxford World's Classics too:
    Thanks for visiting!

  6. […] book. On offer is the 2003 Penguin Classics edition in unmarked but used condition. As mentioned before, this edition was not my favourite among paperback classics but it does have the most thorough […]

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