William Makepeace Thackeray lived during “the age of the magazine,” and personally contributed a number of articles to a few publications, as well as a couple of books. The most well-known book, and thus the novel he himself became famous for, was first published serially in Punch magazine. It is of course, Vanity Fair.
The open edition above is a copy I purchased from my favorite [antiquarian] bookstore, and from the information I’ve gathered over the internet (since it’s not in the book itself), I believe this particular edition was published in 1906. It used to belong to a Charles P. Emerson, or I assume it did, since that is the name written on one of the blank front pages.
You may recognize the green, unopened edition as a Barnes & Noble Classic – published in 2003 – which I recently stumbled upon at my local Barnes & Noble bookstore. This does not have anyone’s name in it, although maybe I should write mine…hmmm…this post is already full of emotion so I’ll save a discussion about this spur-of-the-moment idea for another blog post.
Since I felt it necessary to have not just one but two copies of Vanity Fair, you are probably thinking that it’s a story I’ve read (and presumably enjoyed). And now you are probably thinking it is not – and this thought is the correct one.
It’s not uncommon for any book lover to purchase and collect books they have never read; befriend a bookworm, follow a bookstagrammer, or read any of the fabulous book blogs and this will be quickly verified. This is quite true in my case, especially post-college when I actually have a meagerly-sustaining income and the space to house more than the books I need for classes.
And in the case of Vanity Fair: the 1906 edition was purely an aesthetic purchase, while the B&N edition was a practical, I-won’t-feel-overwhelmed-with-the-fear-of-tearing-pages-and-breaking-the-spine-while-I’m-reading purchase. What makes the former so attractive and so alluring to me is not just the historic binding and the name of an obsolete publisher, but of its relationship to more recent editions, like the B&N Classic.
My 1906 edition is free from an introduction, notes throughout the text, additional comments and questions, and the discourse that has developed over the 170 years since Vanity Fair was serially published. As a last-decade-of-the-20th-Century and 21st Century reader, I am glad all of these things are included in the 2003 B&N Classic edition, especially since I don’t have more knowledgeable people immediately available to me with whom I could talk about the book (I’m thinking of my English classes and professors in college). I’m almost certain there are people out there who wish to read all books in their original forms – I consider myself to be part of that group – and perhaps consider updated texts as watered down versions of the authentic masterpiece. I’m not unaware of the fact that some phrases and words in newer editions of The Classics are altered from their original copies, but I find this more intriguing than annoying or disrespectful.
Recently my local library hosted Madeline Miller – author of The Song of Achilles and Circe, as well as teacher of Latin and Ancient Greek – for their Spotlight Series, which means that for an hour I, among many other community members, sat in on a discussion between Madeline Miller and Liberty Hardy (from Book Riot). A point that was brought up both during the discussion and the questions from the audience that followed had my respect and admiration for Madeline Miller skyrocketing. This point was finding the balance between textual preservation and accessibility. In Madeline Miller’s case, using her books as examples, she emphasized the importance of preserving ancient stories, the act of storytelling itself, and shining a light on overlooked and/or undervalued figures. But she also emphasized her strategy of doing so in a way that non-academics and ordinary readers can gain both knowledge and entertainment – preservation should not equate with keeping historical texts and stories out of the public’s hands. On the contrary; it should be about recognizing history and building on it, maintaining the tradition of story evolution and growth.
So as I look at both of these copies of Vanity Fair (or my new and old copies of Shakespeare, Jane Austen, Beverly Cleary, even), I can’t help but get overwhelmed with thoughts about their age difference, their societal differences, their preservation. I am fortunate enough to have access to a spectacular used bookstore with gems like this 1906 Vanity Fair inside, and I am also fortunate to live in a part of the world with entities that value historic stories and quality discourse as well as modern, non-academic readers.