I would like you to think that I am the kind of person who regularly reads journals like The Literary Review. I’m not, but I would still like you to think that about me, so today I’m going to link you to a review in the June 2012 issue. In this article, John Sutherland reviews the book How to Do Things with Books in Victorian England, by Leah Price, professor of English and chair of the History and Literature program at Harvard. I’ve ordered Price’s book, and I’ll tell you more about it when it arrives.
What struck me in Sutherland’s review was this paragraph:
If, as I have often enough, you teach a seminar in which the students, among their number, have six different editions of Middlemarch, they may be said to be studying the same text, but are they reading the same book? Does the difference matter? To pose the question historically: was a Victorian reading to his family from the four-volume Blackwood 1874 Middlemarch, with its emblazoned binding, generous leading, heavy rag paper, and loose typography, engaged in the same activity as the undergraduate reading the budget-priced, annotated, 10-on-12-point type, Penguin Classic paperback for an upcoming exam?
In one sense, all readers of Middlemarch are reading the same book. For the most part, the text of Eliot’s novel will be the same from one edition to the next. Dorothea Brooke’s story remains the same, whether printed on paper or displayed on the screen of a Kindle.
Middlemarch x 5
Still, the experience of reading Middlemarch is going to be different from edition to edition. I did a quick check of my library’s shelves and found 5 editions of Middlemarch on the shelf. (We also have a set of Eliot’s complete works, but I didn’t include these in my mini-experiment.) In addition, Middlemarch is available as an electronic book.
For the purposes of comparison, I tried to look at the same content in each of these versions. In the 1965 Penguin English Library edition, this was page 485. The Penguin edition is a paperback, and the pages have started to turn brown due to the acidic content of the paper. In a few more years, we will probably end up discarding this edition because of its condition.
Everyman edition of Middlemarch
Just down the shelf is the 1991 Everyman’s Library edition, printed in 1991. This book is much more substantial than the Penguin edition. The paper quality is good, and the binding is attractive. Being a hardback edition, it has a nice heft to it that says, “Here is a book of substance.”
On opening the volume, one difference from the Penguin edition is that there is no page 485! Instead, the Everyman edition follows the original page numbering used in Eliot’s first edition. Each of the eight books that make up the total of Middlemarch is numbered separately. The page that has the same text as page 485 in the Penguin edition is page 69 in Book V: The Dead Hand. Like many novels from that time, Middlemarch was published serially.
Of course, this would be confusing if two or more readers were trying to discuss fine points of the book using these two editions, and that is one reason university professors will require students to use a common edition in a class. For the individual reader, however, the difference in numbering schemes would not be particularly important to the reading experience.
If I wanted to read Middlemarch, I would opt for the fifth of these five editions, the Norton Critical Edition, published in 2000. Like the Penguin edition, this is a paperback, making it comfortably light weight. The paper quality, however, is better, and I won’t have to worry about brittle pages cracking as I read them. In addition, the Norton addition includes explanatory footnotes to help a 21st century reader understand Victorian England. It’s nice to know, for example, that “galligaskins” are long, loose breeches worn by young boys, without having to stop my reading to consult the OED.
One thing I noticed in thumbing through all 5 editions on the library shelves is that all 5 use a small typeface, and the page margins are somewhat narrow. This, combined with the prose style of a Victorian author, makes for a printed page that is dense with type. My presbyopic eyes find small type increasingly difficult, and I seem to prefer printed pages with a little more white space around the type. Is this just a result of old age, or has reading text on the screen changed the way I look at type? Have typesetting conventions shifted over time, thus changing the reading experience?
Topics to ponder another day…..