The Definitive Copy: Part One

July 13, 2009 at 12:00 am 8 comments

The Quest

The Quest

There are books one simply reads to pass the time and then there are books one reads, digests and promptly incorporates into one’s very being. Both are very agreeable types of books and any form you find them in may serve, but in the case of the latter, something more than a mere paperback or trade copy is eventually and inevitably required. I call this the Definitive Copy and, more often than not, the search for a Definitive Copy becomes a Quest with the Definitive Copy standing in for any grail or lady fair.

When considering a Definitive Copy, there are a few of factors that come into play:

1. Aesthetics.
Once you begin the search for a definitive copy of any book, you have clearly a) already read it, b) already loved it and c) already made the decision that you must procure some suitably austere or beautiful volume of it to grace your library because of (b). Those decisions made, it becomes clear that the Definitive Copy must have certain aesthetic qualities. While most of the aesthetic qualities of a Definitive Copy are personal choices and depend on the text, there is one point that mostly remains the same: the aesthetics of the Definitive Copy insist upon hardcover. Paperbacks, with limited exceptions for particularly fine examples of cover art, are really much too flimsy to be Definitive Copies.

2. Personal History and/or Nostalgia
Paperbacks do, however, bring into play this second factor of the Definitive Copy. Personal history and/or nostalgia can create a bit of an issue when searching for your Definitive Copy. The idea behind the Definitive Copy is obviously to show your love for a certain text by enshrining it permanently in your library in a form suitable to the high esteem you hold for it. But what then becomes of the beloved and tatty paperback you first discovered the text in? Surely it is too dear to simply toss at the first sight of a well-bound hardback Definitive Copy. And does not the clear affection bestowed upon it by its owner clearly make that tatty paperback more worthy of the title “Definitive Copy” than some new, blustery, beautiful hardback? Do aesthetics trump the history between you and a text?

It is an issue that almost inevitably leads to duplicates in a personal library, which was sort of the antithesis of getting one Definitive Copy. I personally have been unable to decide the question for my own library and leave it entirely up to you whether you value aesthetics over fondness or visa versa.

3. Age.
The last factor I can think of for choosing the Definitive Copy is age. There is something delightful to be said for choosing as your Definitive Copy an antiquarian copy of the text. Odds are, it is more beautiful than something newly published and of higher quality, but that alone isn’t what makes an older Definitive Copy so wonderful. While choosing an older copy might remove your own personal history, the older copy comes with another set of fascinating historical possibilities. Who else read from those very pages? When? Where? Did they love the book like you do? Surely, they must have! It is a charming part of antiquarian books in general and adds another layer of love onto the Definitive Copy.

The search for your Definitive Copy of any text can be excellent fun. Every bookstore you go into becomes part of the quest and nothing is quite as exciting as finally reaching up onto a bookshelf, pulling down some pretty version, and, with a small thrill and immediate affection, realizing you have finally found your Definitive Copy.

This isn’t to say that there isn’t a far more tragic side to the Definitive Copy. There are the various travails involved in the quest, including duplicate Definitive Copies (?!) and the disappointment of a presumed Definitive Copy in the end failing in some way (corrupted or partial text, poor translation, etc.), among others. Stay tuned for more on that subject in Part Two next Monday!


Entry filed under: Musings and Essays. Tags: .

Summer Reading List Teaser Tuesday

8 Comments Add your own

  • 1. KT  |  July 13, 2009 at 11:56 am

    Loving this musing! It really got me thinking about what I look for in a Definitive Copy…though I think our criteria are quite different, which is interesting! And I do love duplicates, so maybe I’m not a Definitive Copy person after all :\

  • 2. Corey  |  July 13, 2009 at 12:03 pm

    I’d love to hear your criteria! I am pretty firmly against duplicates because of space issues (unless they are different translations!), so maybe it just a different mindset. :)

  • 3. KT  |  July 13, 2009 at 12:46 pm

    Hmm, maybe we’ll have a battle of the definitive copy criteria ;)

    I like duplicates for books I both read and study — for example, I have a copy of Great Expectations that is a complete mess with pencil and post-it flags and water marks and dog ears, but it’s the best copy for me to work from if I’m writing a paper or something. I have one copy that’s antique which I would never read because I don’t want to destroy it, and I have one Penguin Classics copy that I actually read from when I want to enjoy it.

    Jane Eyre is similar…and I think I have two copies of The Catcher in the Rye, though I am not sure how marked up my work copy is. I really need to get a clean copy of Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell; I marked up my work copy so badly that I really cannot read it anymore!

  • 4. Corey  |  July 14, 2009 at 6:18 am

    Ah, yes, I think we do have very different mindsets! I really rarely, if ever, write in my books even if I am working with them for a class because I never know how or why I might want to use them again so I don’t want to get all my notes for paper A in one and then need to use the same text for paper B and have all of A’s notes distracting me in the margins. I use a LOT of post-its and have this whole index card system.

    This isn’t to say I’m one of those anti-marginalia people who firmly believe that writing in a book equals fouling it, hardly! I’m all for people writing whatever they want in their books, I just don’t like to write in mine. I don’t need 14-year-old me’s thoughts on the meaning of Jane Eyre coloring my current reading of it.

    Also, I think not being an English major helps me have fewer literary duplicates since it is extremely rare that I have to use a novel for my papers. Therefore, I’m free to just have my novels hanging about being Definitive and not having an academic purpose (and notes/post-its in them!).

    And Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell is so a book worthy of a Definitive Copy! :D

  • 5. KT  |  July 14, 2009 at 9:16 am

    Yeah, I always write in pencil now after the Bright Lights, Big City ‘imagery’ debacle. That was freshman year, and while it was important at the time to have that in there and my professor actually insisted that we should be marking our books up, I would have liked to have been able to erase the more inane comments later.

  • 6. Corey  |  July 14, 2009 at 9:40 am

    Exactly! That’s what I worry about! I was looking at my little Dover copy of Hamlet last week (or whenever I was home, two weeks ago?) and it my stupid little notes all over it in green ink. Kind of hilarious and, with a Dover, it’s hardly worth bothering about, but still I kind of wish I hadn’t felt compelled to note who each character was upon their entering in the margins. Pencil is brilliant.

    • 7. KT  |  July 16, 2009 at 10:51 am

      My Hamlet is such a mess, too. I think at one point I have a little stick figure Claudius kicking up his heels at heaven. Cute, but not conducive to reading :P

      • 8. Corey  |  July 16, 2009 at 11:02 am

        Awesome! We should definitely compare copies. Mine seems to have some Twelfth Night quotes written in gothic handwriting in the front (or that might be my Romeo and Juliet…high school weirdness, anyway).

        [And I love how you’re rocking the replying! New feature!]


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