For those unfortunates who haven’t read it yet, the above is the first line of Charlotte Brontë’s classic, Jane Eyre. I now have six new-to-me copies of that first line (with the lines that come after it) in order to carry out my experiment to determine which is my favourite publisher of the classics (see Edition Dilemma). My experiment has expanded to include hardcover versions, of which I have bought three, along with paperbacks, which will total four when the last one gets here. The hardcover and paperback editions are published for different uses (pleasure versus study, respectively) and so I will evaluate them separately, starting with the hardcovers.
My purpose in buying hardcover classics would be to have beautiful, durable copies of my favourite books conducive to multiple readings, purely for enjoyment. One flaw in the evaluation that follows is that I didn’t consider translation, which of course doesn’t apply to Jane Eyre but would important if I ever fell in love with Plato or Aristotle. I don’t think I would know a good translation from a mediocre one, however, so at this stage I accept whatever translation the powers that be choose for my favourite edition.
The Everyman’s Library edition is the most visually appealing, at least closed. It has a rich burgundy cloth cover with gold decoration, nicely curved spine, and matching silk ribbon marker. (The books in the series come in a variety of colours.) It is the only hardcover edition to include significant study aids, namely a lengthy introduction, selected bibliography, and parallel chronologies of the author’s life, literary context, and historical events. The pages have a pleasing amount of white space, especially at the bottom, however there is so much show-through of print that it confuses the eye. The wide margins also result in short line length (more on this below). The right hand pages are headed by the chapter numbers (Roman), which I like.
The Modern Library edition (1993) has a grey dustjacket with portrait (unidentified) that matches the gray cloth cover. (The 1997 edition has a different dustjacket and may well have a different cover and binding—alas I didn’t know about the more recent version when I ordered). The binding is square and the book is quite fat, totalling nearly 700 pages. It really resembles a concrete office building, but makes up for it inside. The reason for its stoutness is that the book is printed in a large, dark typeface with wide leading (the space between the lines), made even more readable by the superior opacity of the (acid-free recycled) paper. It is definitely the most immediately readable of the three, although it almost seems too easy—I think I have an idea that reading classics should be hard, a test of intellectual machismo. The pages are smaller than the trade paperback editions (though not pocket-book sized) resulting in a short line length that I know appeals to some but I find it more work having to move to the next line after only nine or ten words. I should add that a short biographical note is included with the text.
Lastly, the Oxford World’s Classics, which turned out to be a little more complicated than I first thought (more on that later). The book I ordered is a mini-hardback, slightly shorter and wider than a pocketbook. The dustjacket is a soothing pink and cream, and the cover is a nice navy cloth with a round spine. (The dustjacket colours vary by title, but I suspect the cloth cover is the same throughout the series.) Like the rest of the series it includes a short, personal introduction by a contemporary author, in this case David Malouf. The right hand pages are headed by both volume and chapter number, which is even better than the Everyman’s Library chapter numbers. The pages themselves are of intermediate opacity, with a small, slender, and elegant typeface. The print is not as dark as I would like, but I actually find it more pleasing to the eye than the chunkier and bolder Modern Library and Everyman’s Library editions. I also find that being forced to focus in on the smaller type reins in my easily distractable mind and helps me to enter the world of the book. For those without 20/20 vision, however, this might be more of a nuisance than a help. The small size of the book makes it very light and comfortable to hold and control in the hand. I have always had a thing for compact little books with small type so this book appeals to me in a visceral way.
Though the Everyman’s Library edition is beautiful to look at, and would look stunning in multi-coloured multiples on the bookshelf, I find it to be the least readable and most unweildy (due to its height) of the three. I am torn between the Modern Library and Oxford World’s Classics editions, the former being easier to read and printed on recycled paper, the latter beaing easier to handle and just plain cute. I should perhaps take into consideration the fact that my eyesight is likely to decline in the coming decades, but I might just as easily consider that my future arthritic hands might prefer a slighter volume. But in the absence of either a major flaw or major advantage in either volume, I will have to go with feel. The type of the Modern Library edition just seems a bit juvenile to me, whereas the Oxford type is classic and smooth, and as I said, I just have a thing for little books.
As for catalogue depth, that is somewhat difficult to determine since none of publishers explicitly say (on their websites) how many titles they publish in hardcover. The Everyman’s Library has a catalogue of 377 hardcover volumes, plus some in its “Contemporary Classics” series which would be considered classics already (e.g. 1984). The Modern Library lists 775 titles in its catalogue, but most of those are paperback and e-books, and there are multiple versions of many works, so the number of hardcover versions is certainly no more than that of the Everyman’s Library, and probably less.
The Oxford World’s Classics website boasts of its 700 titles, but this refers only to its paperback catalogue, with no mention of hardcovers at all. After some digging I found a comprehensive hardcover catalogue online, as well as a Yahoo! Group dedicated to the series. The original OWC series consists of 600-plus mini-hardbacks published between 1901 and 1978, the very first title being Jane Eyre (only 121 shopping days until Christmas, folks…). The book I reviewed comes from one of the seven spinoff series, specifically, the Oxford World’s Classics Centenary Series, begun in 1999, with only 23 titles published so far. I also have a copy of The Mill on the Floss from the Oxford World’s Classics Chancellor Press Editions, published 1985-1987. The latter is smaller (4″x 6″), with an even smaller and slightly more bulky typeface and more show-through, making it less readable than the later series. What I lack (though not for long) is an example from the original series to determine its quality and readability. But even if the books from the original series are pleasing to read, I don’t know if it wise to commit to collecting from an out of print series (plus I wouldn’t have as much confidence in early 20th century translations). On the other hand, since I only plan to splurge on hardcovers for a few favourites, availability shouldn’t be too much of a problem. If I was trying to build up a complete library of matching volumes then availability would be a bigger issue.
Based on the books I have looked at, my favourite is the Oxford World’s Classics Centenary edition, but with it’s extremely limited catalogue, my second choice, the Modern Library, will no doubt end up occupying a larger proportion of my bookshelves. This may change when I get my hands on an original Oxford World’s Classics series volume, but until then, it looks like the Modern Library is the overall best choice in hardcovers.
Next time: Classic paperbacks!