I love to read ‘classic’ fiction. Although I know that e-books of many classics can be obtained for free, because they’re out of copyright, I prefer to read the printed versions. This leads to an important question: which edition should I read?
In the UK, there are four main publishers who produce a wide range of classics and which can be found in many bookshops:
Penguin Classics (an imprint of PenguinRandomHouse)
Oxford World’s Classics (an imprint of Oxford University Press)
Wordsworth Classics (part of Wordsworth Editions)
Vintage Classics (part of PenguinRandomHouse)
I will now attempt to pit them against each other.
Let the battle of the classics commence!
Round 1: Cover designs
If I don’t like the cover, I won’t pick up the book. That’s the dreadful truth. Classics have to work extra hard on the cover design because if a customer doesn’t like it, they can look for other editions with nicer covers.
Penguins are available in several styles now but I’m thinking about the ‘classic’ Penguin Classic – black cover with orange and white type. They look smart on the shelf, even despite any white scuffmarks. The images are always well-chosen and tasteful. Often they are taken from historic artwork but sometimes they are commissioned designs.
Oxfords have had a classy white and dark red aesthetic since their rebranding. Of course, white has a tendency to show up the dirt. Like Penguins, their cover images are lovely. However, the image fragment that appears at the top of the spine is not so good. It’s just too small to be worth looking at.
Wordsworths used to be navy blue, then they were a mid blue, and now they’re usually black. Like Oxfords, they have a spine image, but it’s more extensive so that the picture is clearer. The cover design itself is OK, but the appropriateness of the images can vary. I have seen some unpleasant-looking covers.
Vintages have a distinctive bright red spine. Unfortunately the shade can vary and also fade, meaning that a shelf of these won’t necessarily match. Unlike its rivals above, Vintage avoids the use of historic artwork for the cover images, giving a more modern feel to the design. These tend to be patterns, objects or landscapes. Sometimes interesting, sometimes not.
Round 1 winner – Penguin!
Round 2: Editor’s notes
Often when reading classics, I will find unfamiliar words, references, concepts or even other languages. That’s where the editor’s notes are valuable for helping me to understand what I’m reading.
Penguins have the works: introduction, author bio, further reading and editor’s notes. I’ve found them to be informative and interesting. The notes are referenced using numbers, so it’s easy to find the corresponding note at the back of the book.
Oxfords also have the same kind of material, which is again very helpful. The only disadvantage is that instead of a numbering system, asterisks are used. I find them distracting.
Wordsworths have shorter introductions but that’s OK. Like Penguins, they use numbered endnotes. I’ve used these editions for texts that I studied at university and I found the material was adequate despite not being extensive. At £2 to £3 per book, this makes Wordsworths the best value for money compared to rivals.
Vintages sometimes have very short introductions, but often they have none, letting the writing speak for itself. They tend not to have editor’s notes at the back, which is perhaps a way of cutting costs (no editor to be paid) but it’s not helpful for older texts. I reckon this makes Vintages the least value for money, as they are a similar price to Penguins and Oxfords, but without the extra material.
Round 2 winner – Penguin and Wordsworth are joint winners!
Round 3 – Readability
When I pick up a classic, it’s important that the type is easy to read. Advances in printing technology have (I hope) made texts more legible. I also want my book to be typo-free, or as near as possible.
Penguins are generally easy to read. I can’t fault them on text design and I have no memories of particular Penguin books being spoilt for me by pesky typos.
Oxfords are great… if they’re the popular ones. I had a bad experience with a recent edition of George Gissing’s lesser known The Nether World. Although the modern additions of editorial material were easy-read text, the actual novel was in a horrible cramped type, very black and with huge margins. They obviously hadn’t bothered to re-set the type since the olden days.
Wordsworths have a good layout. However, the type is smaller than Penguins and Oxfords, therefore not as easy to read. Also, my experience has been that Wordsworths have more typos.
Vintages also have decent layouts. Unfortunately, like Wordsworths, they seem to have more typos. I have a feeling that classic texts just get reprinted and reprinted, from one edition to the next, without being thoroughly proofread.
Round 3 winner – Penguin!
I think it’s obvious who won the battle. Penguins may not be perfect, but they’re the dominating presence in the classic books market today and for good reason.
*The Penguins do a victory dance while the Oxfords, Wordsworths and Vintages limp off the battlefield*