Editions and Reading Formats

In one of the comments to the previous thread on middle-brow culture, a poster mentioned how much he hated the double-column page layout of The Great Books of the Western World. Me, too. To my eye, double columns scream “Textbook!” And probably a textbook from the 1930s or 40s. Somehow the resulting pages look tight, crammed and uninviting.

Which brings to mind one of the major crotchets of my later years: An obsession with editions. I figure that if I’m going to spend any more of my too few remaining years in reading, I want the most enjoyable experience possible. So I eschew paperbacks almost entirely (except for the proofs that I often have to read when I’m reviewing), and, before I buy, I look hard at the physical design of the book, the quality of the type and the paper, the entire feel of the volume as it opens in my hand. For the most part, I particularly gravitate to books published between roughly 1890 and 1940. They feel like real books. They’ve got heft, substance, especially those published by certain British companies.. Today’s hardbacks--both British and American-- feel shoddy and gimcrack by comparsion: The bindings are cheap cardboard, the paper often this lifeless droopy stuff. The books all look terrible without their dustjackets and gaudy with them. By contrast, those older books were solid, meant to last, real books.

Recently I bought a half dozen Ivy Compton-Burnett novels--$6 bucks apiece--because they came from a 250 count limited edition. There the type was large and crisp, and the physical layout truly honored this strange comic writer. More and more often, I find myself buying titles I already have on my shelves because a certain edition is just so attractive and, as they stand there in the Strand or the Library Book Sale Room, I start to daydream about reading the book in some fantasy library or study that I will never have. In my mind’s eye, it’s rather like a London men’s club, or perhaps a smaller version of the library at Chatsworth, the palatial home of the Devonshires.

All of which said, I still buy first editions when I can get them or afford them, no matter how they look. And I also like certainly scholarly editions, with good notes or introductions. Over the years I seem to have accumulated 30 or 40 Folio editions, about which I have mixed feelings. The type size is large enough for my old eyes and I feel that I should like the books more than I do. But somehow the paper is too white, the bindings don’t quite open as well as they should, and there’s a certain generic quality to Folios that I don’t care for. That said, I’m glad to own the Folio edition of The Road to Oxiana, by Robert Byron, because I’ve never seen it elsewhere in hardcover. Same goes for Patrick Leigh-Fermor--RIP--and his A Time of Gifts.

As for reading on screens--don’t get me started. Can you really read anything serious and read it seriously if it comes on a screen? Screens are, by their nature, ephemeral, transient, insubstantial. Permanence is alien to their essence. One can, I suppose, whip through airplane novels and beach books on handheld devices , but why would you not rather have handsome editions of the classics and the books that mean something to you?

Oh, the weird ways of readers and bibliophiles! Do other members of the Reading Room have unusual crotchets, obsessions or requirements associated with their reading or book-buying? Would you please share some of them with us?

- Michael Dirda

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