How to buy a book?
January 9, 2008 2:57 PM   Subscribe

Does anyone have any tips for choosing a good edition of a given novel or collection of poetry or short stories (when more than one exists)?

I'd like to choose editions that might be used in in academic environments, but short of raiding the syllabi from my university's English department, I don't know how to go about this. Any suggestions or tips? I'm currently trying to pick out a collection of Auden's work but this is a general question so the answer need not relate to his poetry.
posted by anonymous78 to Media & Arts (11 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
What do you mean by 'good' in this context?
posted by box at 3:02 PM on January 9, 2008

I recommend wide margins for note-taking. Also, make sure the book is well-made and not too large, if you intend to carry it to and from classes.
posted by kidbritish at 3:03 PM on January 9, 2008

any edition of dante's divine comedy that includes gustave dore's illustrations for the text is excellent. I think this one does that but I'm not sure.
posted by shmegegge at 3:08 PM on January 9, 2008

Response by poster: By "good" I mean reputable from an academic perspective. However, I'm not looking for texts for my own academic use - I don't study literature. I just want to know how I can choose a well-respected edition of a given work of literature.
posted by anonymous78 at 3:32 PM on January 9, 2008

A couple of thoughts from someone who's spent a couple of months choosing texts for a lit course...

1: dirty secret: for texts written originally in English in the last 150 years or so, there's a good chance that most editions are about the same, and if it's on Project Gutenberg you might as well read it there...

2: That said, if you're interested in things like a good introduction, or critical essays packaged along with the text, or if it's something like James Joyce, then you should look for a "critical edition" such as the Norton Critical Editions.

3: I actually find the Amazon reviews pretty helpful when choosing texts--you learn to skip over the ones that began "I had to read this for class and it was really really good" and find the ones that say useful things about the text, editing, and the whole "apparatus" of the book...

4: and the "search inside" feature is awesome if it's a fairly recent, fairly mainstream release--you can almost always get a feel for the production values.

5: finally, why not make a short reading list and post it to the green asking what good editions people have?
posted by Mngo at 3:54 PM on January 9, 2008 [1 favorite]

If it's a translated work, you'll want to research the pros and cons of each translation, and pick the most appropriate one. If possible, consult somebody who reads the original language. If it's poetry, for example, you may find some translations that attempt to match the original rhyme and meter, while other translations may be in blank verse but may be more literal. Also, it may be handy to have an edition where the original language text is present alongside the translation. Again, it depends on what your purpose is.

I wouldn't worry very much about footnotes, endnotes, or commentary, unless it's a particularly difficult work. I would focus on finding an edition where the text is fully present and presented well. You can always get additional books of commentary. I believe the focus should be on reading the text itself.

Whenever footnotes, endnotes, etc are present, make sure they don't get in the way of the text. Footnotes that take up half the page would probably be better off as endnotes. Margin notes can work too, but I think that's more for non-fiction.

For long poems, look for unobtrusive line numbers.
posted by kidbritish at 3:59 PM on January 9, 2008

Best answer: Yeah, definitely depends on what you mean by good. If you're just looking for the standard edition of Auden's works, anything edited by Edward Mendelson, Auden's literary executor, should suffice.

In general, scholarly editions display their bona fides prominently and if there's one "official", authoritative edition - e.g. Princeton U Press's "Complete Works of WH Auden" series - a little research should uncover it. Scholarly editions are usually well-made, have footnotes or some other form of textual commentary, and include a lengthy introductory essay by the editor. I would trust academic presses over trade presses, though Viking's edition of Auden's Collected Poems is standard enough and a lot cheaper than any of the Princeton editions.

On preview, mngo and kidbritish offer sensible advice. All you need is a good place to start when approaching the work an author and the deeper you get into it the more you'll be able to judge the quality of different editions for yourself.

And to disabuse yourself of the notion that there can ever be one perfect edition read this bitter exchange over the pros and cons of the Gabler edition of Joyce's Ulysses.
posted by otio at 4:15 PM on January 9, 2008

Best answer: A good way to figure out what edition(s) are considered "standard" in the academy is to type in the author into JSTOR or ProjectMuse and check what is listed in the citations at the end. This way, if you are dealing with any work that has a complicated version history like Shakespeare's plays, you'll get something that a lot of scholars agree on. With Auden, for example, critical literature cites the Mendelson-edited books (Complete Works or English Auden) as well as the original collections.

Seconding kidbritish on researching translations. Having a friend who's read the book in the original pick out a translation is always great. However, lacking that, reviews of translations are, alas, few. Here's how you might approach picking one on your own out of the versions available at your local bookstore. (I'm speaking as both a translator and someone who's picked out lots of translations from my native tongue here.)

1. Read a few paragraphs from the beginning and consider in which translation you find the voice most appealing. (I read out loud and ignore the stares. YMMV.)

2. Skip ahead a few pages and read another passage. Is the narrative voice consistent? In a translation, inconsistencies are almost universally considered a flaw by translators and critics alike. You might pick another few spots at random.

3. Lastly but not leastly, find a few bits of dialogue. Some translations render these in conversational English that might make you forget that you are reading a translated work. Other versions will stay close to the original idiom, but may therefore sound foreign and jarring to you. Pick your poison with these. Personally, I look for a translation that can handle multiple registers of speech without assigning an unrealistic idiom to the characters (e.g. a boy from a Paris slum speaking in Baltimore slang). These issues pop up elsewhere in the text too of course --but in my experience they are most apparent in dialogue.
posted by whimwit at 5:44 PM on January 9, 2008 [1 favorite]

Good question. I go to the library and a couple of bookstores, pick up editions and compare. Unlike kidbritish, I find an edition with good notes is essential, esp. for older books. So is a solid introduction that provides historical and literary context (which I go back and read after finishing the book). I haven't found it difficult to find "an edition where the text is fully present and presented well," so, for me, the major distinguishing characteristic is the additional material. Well, that and font size. :) Norton Criticals are almost always good (the extra essays and biographical material in the Norton Critical edition of Death in Venice, e.g., made it a much, much richer reading experience), as are Oxford World's Classics editions with decent notes. Penguin and Virgin editions usually look good but I've found the quality of the notes, etc. can vary widely. Still, I've found some really good ones.

I always read a few scattered paragraphs in the introduction and a handful of endnotes to get a feel for how informative and useful the extra material will be, and go with the edition that speaks to me most clearly and interestingly. It's an imperfect science, but it's worked well so far.

Whenever footnotes, endnotes, etc are present, make sure they don't get in the way of the text.

This is definitely true; badly organized or formatted notes can be a real distraction.
posted by mediareport at 8:28 PM on January 9, 2008

Best answer: It depends on what you want. Do you want a portable paperback edition to read on the train on the way to work, or a solid hardback edition that will stand up to heavy use? a selected edition to introduce you to the work of a particular author, or a comprehensive edition that will serve as a work of permanent reference? For general reading, I tend to favour the Penguin Classics and Oxford World's Classics, which are decently printed and generally trustworthy. As far as scholarly editions are concerned, the Oxford English Texts published by Oxford University Press (at what used to be called the Clarendon Press) are generally regarded as the gold standard; they tend to be very expensive, but it's worth looking out for cheap remaindered or secondhard copies. The Faber poetry list is good for collected editions of major twentieth-century poets. For Shakespeare, the Arden editions are usually the best.

Auden is a rather special case. When he put his poems into a collected edition (originally two volumes, Collected Shorter Poems and Collected Longer Poems), he revised many of them, and cut some poems out completely. The current Collected Poems incorporates these revisions (in obedience to the long-established editorial principle of respecting the author's final intentions), which means that some of Auden's best-known poems, including 'September 1, 1939', are excluded. If you want these poems you have to go to Mendelson's edition of the Selected Poems. It's an odd situation, where the Collected Poems is in some ways less complete than the Selected Poems, but that's the way it is. Mendelson is in the process of editing a Complete Poems which will include all the poems with all the textual variations, but that is a massive undertaking and I don't expect to see it any time soon.

Take no notice of the advice that 'for texts written originally in English in the last 150 years or so, there's a good chance that most editions are about the same'. This is a common misconception, but quite mistaken. Many modern authors present very complicated textual problems (Thomas Hardy and Henry James are two well-known examples) and there can be major variations between different editions, depending on the choice of copy-text. (And don't let's forget the infamous Dover Thrift Edition of Emily Dickinson that tidies up the poet's original punctuation ..) Above all (and here again I have to contradict the advice given above) be very cautious about relying on online editions. This came up here on Metafilter not so long ago, when I drew attention to an account of Oscar Wilde's trial that was published online with no indication that it was based on heavily censored newspaper reports.
posted by verstegan at 3:11 AM on January 11, 2008 [1 favorite]

Good advice and good examples, verstegan--I certainly overstated it. Auden (and the awful Dover Thrifts) are a good argument for checking the overall status of a work and the reputation of an edition. I'd still say that it's moot for most works, though, just because the vast majority of things never get to a second edition (if they even make it to a second printing...). But wait, do I actually know this? It does seem like revisionism (in the good sense) is penetrating pretty far outside the canon, doesn't it? I mean, the Library of Frickin' America just put out a pretty hardcover of four Philip K. Dick novels...
posted by Mngo at 7:03 AM on January 12, 2008

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