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Editing the classics, past and present


By Judith Luna

Actually, editing classics is just what I don’t do. My job can be a bit of a mystery to people who wonder whether I rephrase the occasional Jane Austen sentence, or improve Virginia Woolf’s punctuation. Most days I am looking for living authors, not dead ones: the editors and translators who are responsible for the introductions and notes, and who actually do make decisions about how best to present the texts for modern readers. Discussions about how far to modernize the spelling and punctuation of early works, and which edition of a text to use if a work went through multiple editions in an author’s lifetime are part of what goes into creating an Oxford World’s Classic (OWC) edition, and it is something I have always enjoyed.

My job as commissioning editor for the series hasn’t really changed in essentials since I started working on Oxford World’s Classics (then plain World’s Classics) when the paperback series was first launched in 1980. Then, as now, the main tasks are to identify which titles to include and to find the best editors and translators for the job. In the early days that role was undertaken by several editors who each looked after a separate part of the list and the aim was to grow the series as quickly as possible, publishing sixty or more titles a year. Texts were sourced from out-of-print, public domain editions and photographed rather than re-set, which resulted in a rather curious range of typefaces. We had access to earlier Oxford University Press (OUP) editions whose scholarly apparatus and copious textual notes could be pared down for a mainly student and general reader market. These were also the days in which the asterisks which are used to signal the presence of an explanatory note at the back of the book were individually pasted on to the existing pages before being photographed; occasionally they would drop off, but not often.

originspeciesAs the series grew, and reached a critical mass, the rate of publication slowed and new titles were typeset in a standard typeface to a more or less standard design, though in a series that encompasses everything from Arabic scripture to modern drama, a degree of flexibility is crucial. Once the major titles had been commissioned it was possible to explore areas beyond the core curriculum and to include the kind of non-literary works that hadn’t previously been thought of as classics to sit alongside the novels of Charles Dickens or Charlotte Brontë. Including Mrs Beeton’s Book of Household Management in the series was a great way of looking at the cookery book as an important document of social and cultural history. It is as revealing of Victorian attitudes in its ambition and assumptions as other contemporary ‘classics’ such as On the Origin of Species and The Woman in White.

Now the series has reached maturity it is possible to revisit editions and bring them up to date with current critical thinking by commissioning new introductions and notes, new translations, and freshly edited texts. I also try to keep an eye out for upcoming anniversaries — beloved by publishers, TV and radio, and journalists the world over — in order to get more attention for a new OWC edition. The proliferation of social media means that it is easier than it ever has been to communicate directly with readers — this blog is a case in point — and to celebrate books whose authors may be long dead but whose content is just as interesting, if not more interesting, than the latest new book. I am constantly amazed by the topical echoes in so many older works, particularly when it comes to corruption (moral and social), misuse of power, money and fraud. I don’t know whether to be reassured that we’ve been there before, or depressed by how little things have changed.

The series has now been through three relaunches since its inception in paperback in 1980, all aimed at reinvigorating the brand and its presence in the marketplace. One of these involved a change in the size of the books in order to conform to the physical dimensions of what has become the most popular paperback format. The series title has evolved from ‘The World’s Classics’ to ‘World’s Classics’ to the current ‘Oxford World’s Classics’, but the most obvious changes concern the cover design. Starting with a boxed illustration and a fixed position for the author and title above it, the cover now has an illustration that fills the front panel. The position and appearance of the type has changed, and the finish has moved from gloss varnish to matt laminate.

Whatever happens to future incarnations of Oxford World’s Classics, one thing is certain: their authors will not be opting for the self-publishing model any time soon.

Judith Luna is Senior Commissioning Editor for Oxford World’s Classics.

For over 100 years Oxford World’s Classics has made available the broadest spectrum of literature from around the globe. Each affordable volume reflects Oxford’s commitment to scholarship, providing the most accurate text plus a wealth of other valuable features, including expert introductions by leading authorities, voluminous notes to clarify the text, up-to-date bibliographies for further study, and much more. You can follow Oxford World’s Classics on Twitter, Facebook, or here on the OUPblog.

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Recent Comments

  1. Brett Johnson


    I was wondering whether a small but significant typo could be fixed in future printings of OWC’s Little Dorritt (which I just finished for the first time, and with great pleasure).

    Chapter 30 p 354 fifth line from bottom

    Should be Mrs Clennam’s not Mr Clennam’s – clearly, though I did just check with the text on Gutenberg.

    I also enjoyed your decription of your work at OUP – what a fantastic job!

    Kind regards –

  2. James Devin

    Please let me suggest a translation from the German of Friedrich Hölderlin’s novel Hyperion.

    Sent from Toronto Canada

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