Bach: Christ Lag in Todesbanden
Mozart: Requiem

A Note on Bleak House Editions

When my wife and I moved to a new house in the fall of 2022, we tried to get rid of some of the books that were overflowing, in a very unsightly way, our shelves. That meant books that we had already read and didn't want to re-read, or had not read and most likely never would read, and duplicates. Among the latter were two copies of Bleak House. One was a small, beat-up, and generally undistinguished paperback. The other was a hardback, in perfect condition, of a good size, and nicely printed. 

So that was an easy decision: out went the paperback. 

But six weeks or so ago, when I finally began to satisfy my desire to re-read Bleak House for the first time in roughly fifty years and took up the hardback, I noticed something odd. I had just finished Dombey and Son, which runs to some 900 pages. I was fairly sure that Bleak House was at least comparable in length. But this copy had slightly under 600 pages, though it was printed in a typeface of reasonable size and with comfortable margins. Closer examination discovered this brief and inconspicuous note on the title page: "Arranged for Modern Reading."

The fact that I strongly suspect the internet to be a net harm to society doesn't prevent me from using it and appreciating the fact that it gives me instant access to vast quantities of information. I took a quick look at the Project Gutenberg edition of Bleak House and saw that at least one whole chapter was missing from my copy. Then I poked around for information about this particular edition, published by The Literary Guild, which is a book-of-the-month style enterprise, perhaps meant to be classier. And I found that it is indeed abridged. It is, as I said, a handsome production, with illustrations by Edward Gorey (which may be enough reason for me to keep it). But abridgment of such a novel is unacceptable, indeed a sin, if meant for adult readers.

So I checked out a copy from the local library: the Oxford Illustrated Dickens edition, the illustrations being the originals by "Phiz." I hadn't gotten very far in it before I realized that I wanted to buy my own copy. But the OID is out of print, replaced, apparently, by the edition included in the Oxford World's Classics series. That seemed promising. I was also interested in the Norton Critical Edition, which I've found to be very good, and, having just been reading the Wordsworth NCE, I wanted the paraphernalia of notes, background, and criticism. (I thought it was out of print, as Amazon only offered used copies. But I find now that it apparently is very much alive. At any rate I found an inexpensive used copy in good condition.)

I ended up buying both and would recommend either. Quality and size of typeface are increasingly important to me in my old age, as my vision seems to get a bit worse every year. (And it's not something that can be solved with the right glasses; if I live long enough I'll probably need cataract surgery). Both these are very readable. Norton is still using the typeface they've been using since at least the Norton Anthologies which were my textbooks in the mid-'60s, or at least a very similar one. It's remarkably clear as well as compact.

I'm telling you all this because I hadn't quite realized how much detail I was skimming past and ignoring in reading Dickens without notes.  He assumes we know something about London geography, about the Chancery courts, about details of life in his time which have had little or no presence in ours for the past century and more. There are many words and phrases that are unintelligible to us, or to me at least, and I venture to say most of us. I hadn't realized how often I contented myself with getting the general drift of a sentence or paragraph and moving on without knowing exactly what had been referred to.

Here, for instance, opening the NCE at random, I find this footnote:

  1. A ship that is laid up and out of commission, although still afloat.

The note is attached to this sentence in the text:

The good ships Law and Equity, those teak-built, copper-bottomed, iron-fastened, brazened-faced, and not by any means fast-sailing Clippers are laid up in ordinary.

Without the note, you haven't completely missed the sense as long as you get the general idea that the ships are not proceeding. But you certainly miss some precision and some flavor. 

Both the NCE and the OWC have such notes, footnotes in the NCE and endnotes in the OWC. I prefer footnotes to the constant page-turning required by endnotes. And I prefer the NCE overall. It has much more supplementary material. Some of that doesn't interest me, including 65 pages of textual notes giving every detail of variation between manuscripts of the novel, almost all of them trivial. But there are also, for instance, selections from documents of the time that go into disgusting detail about the filth of some parts of London in the 1840s, and a section devoted to tracking down real-life sources for some of the characters. I did not know that the detestable freeloader Skimpole is, by Dickens's own assertion, a portrait of Leigh Hunt, though I don't know that Dickens thought Hunt behaved detestably. 

Both editions include the Phiz illustrations, but the NCE doesn't have them all. And I wonder about the reproduction of some of them in both. Night scenes are more or less black smears, with little detail visible. But maybe that's my old eyes. Also, the maps are better in the OWC. 




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Finally.....a post not about classical music!
I currently have the Barnes & Noble large paperback edition, and the Everyman's Library hardcover. The former has lots of endnotes, and I think the latter has none; but it does have as an appendix the GK Chesterton essay. They both appear to be unabridged. The real question is what edition did I read when I actually read the book several years ago? These are the only two I have and neither has been read. I simply cannot recall.

There probably aren't many abridged editions around. Sad about that Literary Guild one. I don't know if that was/is normal for them or not. Reminds me of the Reader's Digest Condensed Books, which I read a few of when I was in my early teens, and which now strikes me as a bizarre thing. I sort of doubt that they ever abridged The Sound and the Fury.

Tune in next week (or s0) for another classical music post! Alas, it won't be about the Mobile Symphony's performance of the Mozart Requiem, which I had *really* been looking forward to. But I've come down with a cold and think it would be very inconsiderate of me to squeeze in with hundreds of other people at the Saenger.

I note, by the way, that of the ten posts listed in Recent Posts, only three are about classical music.

Interesting that there's an abridged edition of Peter Ackroyd's biography of Dickens. The full version is 1,195 pages and the abridged 624.

In other words cut by almost half. Wow. I could sort of argue for that, though. It’s not like cutting back a work of art. So many biographies just pile on detail that doesn’t much interest non-specialists.

I didn't remember the Ackroyd Dickens biography being that big, but it sure enough is. My copy, a trade paperback, runs to 1250 pp. with notes and index. I don't remember exactly when I read it, but my guess would be mid-90's, most likely after I had watched and then read 'Martin Chuzzlewit,' which rekindled my interest in him.

Although I enjoy listening to classical music, I bought a season ticket to the Mobile Chamber Society and have not bothered to go to one of the concerts yet this season (there is one more this month, so maybe), and a friend tried to get me to to to the symphony with her recently, and I declined. It seems that I'm not interested in going to these live events.

Their next program looks...sort of "hmm". I've never heard of Grazyna Bacewicz, could be great for all I know. But the Bach and Beethoven are sure winners. I don't know about that Beethoven quartet, I can never remember the numbers, but the fact that it's opus 127 makes it one of the "late" ones, which makes it not light. Though it's an early late one :-)

The fact that their concerts are on Sunday afternoon is a big negative for me.

I see they had Messiaen's "Quatuor pour la Fin du Temps" on one of their recent programs. There is a story connected with that piece that for some reason I feel compelled to share.

I was once reading a music encyclopedia for fun (as one does) and came across the following sentence in the article on Olivier Messiaen: "Taken prisoner in World War II, his 'Quartet for the End of Time' was written in a concentration camp." I remember this very clearly because it was the first time that I ever noticed a dangling participle in an actual published piece of writing.

I am laughing out loud. I'm a little vague about the definition of a dangling participle, but I know that mistake when I see it, and it drives me a bit crazy. "Driving to Gulf Shores, the traffic was awful." I was especially mortified when I caught myself doing it not long ago.

I love that piece btw.

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