How do you pick an imprint for classics?

Posted May 3, 2014 by Michael @ Knowledge Lost in Literature / 8 Comments

Every publisher seems to have their own classics section. Penguin Random House now control most of the market (Penguin Classics, Modern Classics, Signet Classics, Vintage Classics, etc). So how do you choose which collection to buy from? Do you even pay attention to the publisher? When I first started hording collecting books, I didn’t pay too much attention and went for the prettier cover but I’m beginning to wonder if this is a decent solution.

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Sure, I would love to own every book released in the Pulp! the Classics; they are fun and I do own a few of them already but buying a classic because of their covers isn’t really effective. Not all editions are the same, in particular translated classics. When picking up a Russian classic do you know which translator to pick? Do you spend time researching the best translator or do you have a publisher you can trust?

I’ve often contemplated this question and since studying at university I’ve noticed that they often recommend two publishers more than any other; Norton Classics and Oxford World Classics. While they don’t have the best covers, I’ve had the greatest success with Oxford World Classics, to the point that I don’t want to buy any other editions. If asking the internet which translation of a novel I should read, for War and Peace it is Louise and Aylmer Maude and for Crime and Punishment, Jessie Coulson is often the answer. They are the translators used in the Oxford World Classics.

I’m not sure what it is, I just trust Oxford World Classics more than any other and they often offer some great questions to ask yourself in the back of the novel. My new found love for Oxford World Classics and the reason for this post is not to give a sales pitch or anything like that; I’m just curious if others think about this topic in as much detail as I do. If so, which publisher do you trust over all others?

8 responses to “How do you pick an imprint for classics?

  1. Violet

    Often I spend longer picking the edition to read than I do actually reading the book. There is SO much to consider. 🙂 I like OWC, too, but I also like Alma Classics because some of their translations are excellent and they have good notes and references. I also like some translators published by Penguin Classics, so I buy them as well. I don’t tend to buy Nortons because the print is often too small and I don’t like to squint when I read, but they are good for uni because they have a wide selection of critical responses and notes. Wordsworth Classics sometimes have really good introductions and they’re cheap, so I think they’re good value. For me, it’s not the cover that’s important but what’s inside, and I don’t pay much attention to cover art these days.

    I do a lot of research before deciding which translation to read. I try to compare editions at the library, to see which one I like the best, although I tend to buy most translations for favourite novels. It’s surprising what a marked difference there can be between translations. It’s a matter of finding a translation that you can get along with, one that doesn’t grate on your ear or sound strange. I avoid Pevear and Volokhonsky, and Constance Garnett, although many people love their work. I find P&V too literal and flat, and Garnett’s work is badly dated, imo. I really like Rosemary Edmonds’ work – a bit hard to come by these days. She makes Tolstoy shine, I think.

    • You do way too much research when picking a classic, but that’s pretty awesome. I know I can ask you if I need questions about translators. But I do like OWC because it has never disappointed me. I don’t want to look at Alma, I don’t want more copies of every book 😛

  2. I just can’t with the Oxford classics, I do NOT like those white spines! Admittedly, if I need a classic purely for a class, I grab a copy and then give it away after. (Although, more recently I do prefer the Norton Critical editions for school since they have so much great extra content!)

    For my own purposes, I go mostly for either the Modern editions with the brown spines or the UK Vintage editions.

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