Saturday, July 18, 2009

Extras and packages

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 The points the translator references (discussing secular education and how soon it might change) are certainly outdated.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.


  1. I read this and felt that it is an affirmation of how out of touch I think the publishing world is with its customers.

    Not all may feel this way, but I think you've hit the nail on the head especially with the attention paid to the external, not the internal components of a work of literature.

    Gives "face value" a whole new meaning, as besides the bottom line on the ledger sheet, it seems this is all they care about.

    Unfortunately, many readers do bear a bit of the responsibility for this happening - not wanting to work too hard to comprehend everything, including the nuances, of older literature. They prefer to have it all handed to them.

    Of course, I'm not one to talk as I found that reading a book recently considered "modern literature" too much of a chore. However understanding that I may have been a bit "lazy" in reading it, I kept it on my shelf and plan to re-read it someday. Hopefully with a more "energetic" attitude.

  2. I like to have the extra material for older books too. I have, however, read some books put out my very small presses without a lot of money whose goal is to make available older literature that is lesser-known. In these cases, I think probably they didn't have the money to include all the extra stuff. But it really is so much nicer to read a Penguin edition or an Oxford edition or something similar.

  3. Interesting points. I really enjoy any extras in any novels, older or not,with one exception. I loathe those awful readers' guides-they really are a waste. I imagine that all extras drive up costs and therefore prices which would explain their absence.
    Thank you for telling me about Brodeck. I'd have read it anyway but it's nice to hear from someone else who's read it, or even knows of the author.
    And I didn't know about Truth by Zola. Germinal is a favourite but I haven't read much else by him.

  4. I have recently been collection books by Gregor von Rezzori on ebay and abebooks, going for the hardback editions where possible. I am struck by the high quality of binding, paper, presentation of the books I have received. I think I detect a decline in "product quality" in the last few years!


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