Personal Editions

I have this idea.

The publishing industry has traditionally produced different editions of texts in order to market them to different kinds of customers, from lightly annotated popular editions to help readers with places, names, archaic terms, and unusual language, to heavily annotated academic editions that come complete with relevant historical material, critical essays, chronologies, bibliographies, and every other textual apparatus imaginable.  These editions are, of course, limited by the number of customers willing to buy them, so they tend to include mostly the major texts, and they tend to be edited by scholars who are more or less experts in their fields.  Texts that are not commercially viable or that are edited by people who are not experts in their fields are understandably left unpublished.

However, publish-on-demand style websites like Blurb or Lulu or Xlibris, among many others, now make it possible, at least in theory, for people to make their own editions of public domain texts quite easily.  The texts themselves are readily available from sites like Project Gutenberg and Digital Book Index, and they can be simply copied and edited and published as new editions with the tools provided by the publishing sites.  The cost is nil, except to have the new edition printed, and the result is an edition that meets the precise needs of the one who edited it.

The most obvious users of personal editions would be teachers.  In fact, the idea first occurred to me when I tried and failed to find a decent academic edition of G. K. Chesterton’s The Napoleon of Notting Hill.  How hard would it be, I reasoned, to lift the text from Project Gutenberg and add my own introduction and notes specifically for my class?  As I thought about this, I also realized how easy it would be to make course specific collections of essays or short stories, so that I would always have exactly the texts that I wanted and not have to bother paying for anthologies that restricted my choices and never had the texts I really wanted anyway.  I am at the moment working on some of these kinds of ideas.

There are other less obvious uses for personal editions, however.  For example, I might make notes directly into a digital copy as I am reading it and include appendices of anything that it prompts me to write, so that I can publish a very intimate edition of the text.  A group of friends might read a text together and compile their responses into an edition.  A conference on a text might collect the papers that were presented and gather them into an edition.  Wherever critical or scholarly work on a text takes place, in other words, it should be possible to gather that work together and to create an edition of the original text that includes this work.

Of course, these editions would not often be interesting to anyone who was not directly involved in their production.  An edition prepared for my class or myself or my friends or my conference will likely only be interesting to my class or myself or my friends or my conference, but just because something is only locally valuable does not necessarily mean that it is less valuable.  In fact, for me, the one involved in the production of these editions, personalized texts of this sort might very well be an invaluable record of my intellectual practice through my teaching, studying, and discussion with others.  Their interest to third parties would hardly be relevant.

On the other hand, by publishing personal editions publically rather than just making notes privately, it becomes possible that someone just might find the personal edition useful and be able to access it.    As a teacher, I might be able to find an edition of The Napoleon of Notting Hill or a collection of Renaissance literary criticism that is in fact useful to me, because someone else has taken the time and the energy to make it.  As a reader, I might be able to find an edition with a style of notation and commentary that is particularly conducive to me, because someone has taken the time and energy to make it publically available.

So, there you have it: my idea.  Let me know if you think it has merit.

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4 comments
  1. Curti said:

    As you say, the appraisal of third parties is irrelevant, so snap to it on your own spurs, Luke, don’t worry about our review.

  2. Katerina said:

    Luke, I think this is really cool.
    Curtis, you are totally missing the point.

  3. Curti said:

    I am not missing the point, he said the appreciation of other distant participants would not be the motivation, so approval from anyone should not be necessary, hold someone to their words, Katerina.

  4. Lauren said:

    I had a few professors in university who did this, rather than assigning one textbook by one author/editor. The university bookstore produced them — they were simple spiral-bound collections of 8.5 x 11 printouts of various readings from different sources — and I think they ended up being a bit cheaper than a standard textbook because the materials were simpler to produce (I think most of what we paid for was copyright for each of the pieces in the package). It would be even better if, as you suggested, you could use texts that were primarily in the public domain.

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