While most new books today come elegantly packaged with a nice cover image, a small author blurb, acknowledgments or an afterword by the author, and (increasingly) the occasional reader's guide (often rather pointless), some books still seem to lag behind. Sadly, these are usually the books that need the additional information most.
In the internet age, it's useful but unnecessary to have so much information about a new book unless the book takes place in a certain period and the author (or publisher) feel it's their duty to add small tidbits in addition to the hard facts. An amusing author blurb is always enjoyable but rarely sheds light on the book in cases of standard fiction. Reading guides are occasionally interesting but should probably remain on the internet (why waste the millions of sheets of paper for something most people don't read?). A reading group guide is perhaps helpful to reading groups but even so, it is not a required part of the book itself. There's no need to include it directly in the book. Author afterwords, on the other hand, often do provide a bit of food for thought, showing the reader a bit of what the author thought writing the book. Always interesting.
What's frustrating is a case like "Truth" (Zola). The book was published in English in 1903. The single available English edition is this 1903 version, published almost immediately after the book was written. The only occasional interference by the translator is the fairly irrelevant introduction or the rare comment about how the book wasn't properly edited because Zola passed away as he was beginning the editing process. But reading this today proves to be a problem. The points the translator references (discussing secular education and how soon it might change) are certainly outdated. It would be fascinating to have, like what Oxford World Classics tends to give, detailed annotations. Rather than wonder, "Well then... when did this happen?" and have to search futilely, the book would offer answers to all the time relevant questions.
With older books, this "extras" issue seems a little more relevant. It's the way of the world that things change, meaning that even the best books occasionally need a little explanation. It's extremely annoying to get a book packaged exactly as it was a century ago, down to the same font and translator notes, with no additional information regarding everything that's changed in the last century. Or, perhaps even worse, books that have phrases in other languages and don't come with a mini-dictionary. A book like "Villette", by Charlotte Brontë. The constant French may not have troubled the Brontë sisters and their contemporary readers, but for most readers today, something like the Bantam edition I own is a slap in the face. Riddled with French, the publishers did not see fit to provide readers with translations for any phrase, even though they occasionally serve as the main point of the paragraph. And it's simply not enjoyable to read a book and not understand about a third of what they're saying. I don't ask the book to give me the historical context in this particular case, but at the very least casual footnoted translations.
For modern literature, there's less of a problem. The packaging issue is so important to selling, most books come with too much. The older books suffer and ultimately torture the readers for it. I have to wonder about the reasons for blessing modern books with unnecessary information but leaving out crucial bits from older literature. If only publishers felt packaging was as important for the classics as it is for debuts, readers might better appreciate the classic literature. Yet I do maintain some level of optimism, as I suspect the next reissue of "Truth" in a century from now will come with a couple of time relevant annotations... for 2003.