Cracker Jack Classics

I’ve been noticing a trend in the book business lately in which vendors of electronic book readers throw in some “classics” with their gadget to sweeten the deal. The iLiad, Elonex, and Sony Reader can be found shipping with fifty to a hundred pre-loaded public-domain books. What’s more, one of the selling points of all the readers is that they can, with more or less digital wizardry, be loaded with countless free books from sites like feedbooks, ManyBooks.net, and Project Gutenberg. It seems as though classics have become the prize in the box of Cracker Jacks—a little something extra with no monetary value that’s fun to find in the bottom of the box.

I have mixed feelings about this. Here we have some of the greatest literature of all time being used as a marketing tool. On the other hand, perhaps it will expose some readers to books they would otherwise not seek. There’s also the question of what ebooks will do to classics in print. Will people, especially students, keep buying paperback classics when they can download them for free? Bookseller.com has an interesting article on the subject, which expresses confidence that the “value added” classic in print, i.e. critical editions, will always do well. However I do wonder about one comment Alessandro Gallenzi of Oneworld Classics: “One of the issues with the [free] e-books is that they are completely­ rubbish—it’s just text.” Well, isn’t that the way they were written? How many first editions had notes and introductions and chronologies of the author’s life? Do we really need editorial content included in the book in order to benefit from reading it? With online resources we are less dependent than ever on a book’s editor for helping us understand a text and its context. Indeed a serious student might prefer to get multiple opinions online than to rely on a single editor.

If I was a classics publisher I wouldn’t sit around watching the ebook ship sail away, I’d climb aboard with my “value added” and see about making classics in electronic format worth something. Extended hyperlinked multimedia notes might be a good start. Bringing together multiple editorial perspectives might be another possibility. Imagine if Oxford World’s Classics or Penguin Classics put all the critical content from all the past editions of a single work together in one electronic package? Something like that might be worth more than a Cracker Jack prize.

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4 comments on “Cracker Jack Classics

  1. Jenni says:

    What a great subject to contemplate!

    The problem that I have with the “free giveaways” of classics on e-readers is that as much as I love my own Kindle, I can't read the classics on it. I need to have the physical book to write in the margins and underline passages and flip back to previous chapters. If my first exposure to a classic was on an e-reader it is somewhat likely I would give up and read the Sookie Stackhouse books instead.

    However, I love your idea of including multimedia notes. Hyperlinked annotations would be a definite draw for me! I would pay good money to buy a classic with those kinds of additions on my Kindle, even if I already had a hard copy or two on my shelves.

  2. Sylvia says:

    Thanks for that, Jenni. I've been wondering what it's like to do serious reading on an e-reader. Nothing beats the ease of flipping back and forth in a book. I know you can do annotations with the Kindle, but don't imagine they're as easy to access as written notes, i.e. with a mere twitch of the eyeball. Maybe they should make a holographic e-reader where your own notes float in the air above the text… 😉

  3. Heather says:

    The 100 free classic books was actually a selling point for me…and after I bought my Sony Reader, I discovered that I could access Project Gutenberg and Manybooks (to my great delight).

    For me, my ebook has made classic literature much more accessible. I've been willing to 'try out' more than I would if I was buying individual volumes, and I've been able to find some amazing work that isn't easily in print (Edna Ferber is my latest literary crush).

    I don't have annotations available in the Reader, but I'm reading the books purely for enjoyment and not for academic use. If I was doing a more careful study, I think I'd go back to paper…but otherwise, I'll stick with my e-ink.

  4. Sylvia says:

    Heather, you bring up an excellent point about being able to try-before-you-buy with classics on your e-reader. I personally favour using a notebook for serious reading, rather than writing in the margins, but I still feel like reading an actual book is a more contemplative experience. I'd probably have to try it to find out.

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