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.