I have been a fan of Oxford World’s Classics, both hardcover and paperback, for some time, but lately they have been hard to find, especially in Canada. This is a shame because I find that OWCs have much better editorial content than their main rival, Penguin Classics, and are also better made (full comparison here). So, I was quite pleased when Oxford University Press announced that it would be re-issuing its Oxford World’s Classics series with a new look. The good people at OUP recently sent me a few samples to look at, and I’m pleased to report that they continue to maintain the high Oxford standard.
Just having the series in print again would have been good enough for me, but the new cover design really is more aesthetically pleasing, and the books seem to be better made than their predecessors. The covers have a matte finish with beautiful, relevant artwork and a clean, white band for the title text. The spines are white with the familiar OWC red band and a small detail from the cover art at the top. The binding feels more supple and secure than older editions, though that may have something to do with their youth. The paper also feels smoother and stronger than it used to be.
I have only perused the texts and am no expert on them so my comments relate mainly to the editorial materials. These vary depending on the text, so I will treat each one individually just to give you a taste of the different possibilities. I appreciate that Oxford does not take a cookie-cutter approach to its classics, but tailors each edition individually.
Let’s start with what might be the largest OWC, The Bible: Authorized King James Version with Apocrypha. It is a full two and a quarter inches thick, and has an extra thick binding to hold it all together. Unlike the other books in this series the paper is bright white and thin, though not as thin as typical bible paper. This makes for excellent reading with no bleed-through, unlike many (if not most) more expensive bibles. The editors have provided a long (36 pp.) introduction, bibliography, short glossary, good maps, and 120 pages of explanatory notes covering each section and book of the Bible. The editorial approach is historical-critical, and the editors present the Bible as “the basic book of our civilization,” and the KJV in particular as “a classic book of English literature.” It would make an excellent edition for someone who wants to read the King James Bible for its impact on English literature and culture.
At the other end of the size scale is Classical Literary Criticism, a thin volume which collects writings on literature by Plato, Aristotle, Horace, and others. The muted cover art is Rembrandt’s Aristotle with a bust of Homer; very appropriate. After the short general introduction the texts are presented bare. There are introductions to each text in the endnotes, but these are quite brief, with the exception of Aristotle’s Poetics, which gets a more thorough treatment. An index of proper names, with dates and field of work, finishes off this spare volume. Evidently the editors felt that the classics speak for themselves.
I was somewhat disappointed with the Oxford World’s Classics edition of the Qur’an. Though the editor and translator is a scholar, the introduction has an apologist slant, and sometimes seems to present religious doctrine as fact. This is not what I would expect from Oxford, but I suppose it is a sign of the times. It is now nearly impossible to publicly comment on the Qur’an in any other way without being subjected to threats and acts of violence. The unfortunate consequence of this is that the translation is suspect. Some verses do indeed appear to be softened: “Men are the managers of the affairs of women” in Arberry becomes “Husbands should take good care of their wives” in this edition. Other contentious verses have more conventional translations, sometimes with footnotes suggesting how to interpret them. The language is formal, modern English, which may not exactly reflect the exalted, archaic language of the original, but it helps to make the meaning clear. The book also includes a bibliography, chronology, map, index, and footnotes. It would be a good edition for someone who wants an easy-to-read edition of this important book. Just keep in mind that it may be a somewhat softer interpretation of the text than others.
The Canterbury Tales is a re-issue of the 1985 edition, and it looks as though it hasn’t been reset since then. The typeface is more slender and sharp than what Oxford usually uses these days, and it is a bit wobbly but I find it charming. The translation is in verse, and the translator writes that when necessary he sacrificed rhyme in order to preserve the plain speech of the original. The book also includes a bibliography, chronology, and endnotes. Here’s an amusing little taste from the Prologue to the Oxford Scholar’s Tale:
‘Let’s have some jolly tale of adventure,
And keep your flowers of rhetoric in store,
Your figures of speech and so forth, to give wings
To the high-flown language that men keep for kings.
Just for once speak in simple terms, we pray,
So we can understand the things you say.’
Last is Milton’s Paradise Lost, which gets my enthusiastic approval for having footnotes! This edition is from 2004, as is the Qur’an, which also has footnotes, so perhaps this is the new standard for Oxford. The system of indicating notes is one I haven’t seen before and I like it very much. Any line with a note has the line number printed in roman type in the margin, while regular line numbers are italicized. The notes are then listed by line number at the bottom of the page. I think this makes for smoother reading than if asterisks or other signs were used within the line. Listing the notes by line number also makes it very easy to jump back to the line you were reading. The book also features a thorough introduction, note on the text, bibliography, and chronology.
I hope this gives you a sense of what the Oxford World’s Classics series has to offer the serious reader. I should add that the prices of these books are very reasonable and comparable to the Penguin Classics for what I consider to be a better product. I plan to stock up while they are available, replacing some of my worn out paperbacks and filling in some of the gaps in my library. Although I generally don’t pay much attention to how books look, I won’t deny that the idea of having a whole host of matching white spines on my shelves is rather attractive. Let the shopping begin!