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left: 8th Ed. Vol 1. right: 9th Ed. Vol. 1.

About twice a year, I go on a two-day irrational rant against textbook publishers.  Good morning, folks, it’s that time of year again.

I really don’t blame them.  I get it.  Back when the mastodons roamed the earth and I was in college, publication of any kind was a Big Deal.  It was an expensive, time-consuming, and labor-intensive process of editing, proofing, legal checking, typesetting, proofing again, bluelining, laying out, proofing again…all with hand and eye and other human coordination.  Then the textbook came out and the publisher sold it for what seemed like a hefty price, for the time, and we the students took them to class and home and to the library and back, and either scribbled in them in blue ballpoint or not, as the spirit moved us (I’ve talked about textbook annotation before) and then at the end of fifteen weeks we either shelved them lovingly or sold them back.

Then as now, once the book has been in somebody’s possession and is re-introduced into the marketplace, it is no longer in any way connected with the publisher — the entity that did all that proofing and checking and typesetting and distributing and advertising.  Even if the book was pristine and less than five months old, its wheels had essentially touched down off the showroom floor and it was Used.  It might be worth a high or a low percentage of its original retail price but for the publisher, it might as well not exist at all.  That is especially true now.  With online retailers and private exchanges, a textbook, old, new, highlighted or clean, tight binding or cracked, has nothing to do with the publisher.  They will never see another penny off of it. (Maybe nobody else will either, but that’s not the publisher’s lookout.)  Now, next semester, they might well sell another batch of new copies to the bookstores (or, today, directly to the student online) but there’s no doubt that some of the potential market is going to be taken up by the used book trade, private or public.  Therefore, the next time the publisher stands to make any money off of this particular book is when it is revised and re-issued.

In a simple world, the textbook publishers would be making obscene profits from all of this and we could sit back and moan about the blatant absurdity and greed behind yet another “New Edition!” e-mail.  From the professor’s point of view, it is absurd: we did just fine with the old edition, and all of our notes, assignments, syllabi, and other material will have to be substantially altered to adapt to the new version.  Some of this material is posted in a well-established learning management system and will have to be reviewed and updated.  Any really brilliant scribblings in the margins of the old edition will have to be memorized, foregone, or re-written. Page numbers will be wrong everywhere.  I, personally, will always find some editorial position in the new edition that affronts my sensibilities.  Last year it was when the publisher replaced some translated Babylonian myths with some “summarized” Babylonian myths.  Yesterday I was shaking my fist and yelling “Greenblatt!” because the Norton Anthology of English Literature (9th ed.) is now subtitled “The Major Authors” and so bye-bye Richard Crashaw, hello Margaret Cavendish?  Really?  The Blazing World is feminist and groundbreaking and all that, but in all it’s still kind of an inferior work. Oh, I wanted to be inspired by it, to uncover a gem previously buried by the patriarchy.  But it’s really kind of a hack.  If Pope read it, the Duchess of Newcastle would have ended up in The Dunciad alongside Colley Cibber.

But what really got me (although I will recover) was the dismemberment of Spenser.  The Norton has never had the full Faerie Queene; that would be just nuts.  But it’s usually had all of Book One, which can be taught successfully in a survey course.  Yesterday I found out that Cantos 3, 5, 6, 7 and 12 are “summaries”; Cantos 2, 4, 9, 10 and 11 are “excerpts” (“From Canto 4: The House of Pride”); leaving only Cantos 1 and 11 complete.

I suppose next we’ll make movies where we provide a quick voice-over review of things (“So then Tommy Lee Jones runs down some alleys, arriving at: OUTDOOR: NIGHT: Warehouse district. SOUNDS: Gunshots. LONG SHOT: Running feet.  MEDIUM SHOT: Punches are thrown.”) and assume that we’re getting the whole story.

OK, rant over.  I know.  Most of them only skim the darned thing anyway.  But the point of Spenser is his poetry.  How does a summary teach that?

I’ll say this, and then I’ll regret it in the morning:

The Norton Anthology of SparkNotes. Cover price: $76.25.

Ouch.  Sorry, Mr. Greenblatt.  But I have to be honest with you.  I’m not that much younger than you, and when I went to college M.H. Abrams was a God.  I couldn’t help but notice that Volume 2, since you took over from Abrams as general editor, doesn’t look as much like the Romantic vision it once was; it looks far more conventional, like anybody’s vision of the Romantic period. I’m a bit disillusioned.  I’m a bit disconcerted. I want a more complete edition of Paradise Lost.  And I want Richard Crashaw back.

I don’t blame the publishers.  I know what the used book market is like.  I know that the students have no choice but to pursue the best price, and the publishers and the booksellers have to make a profit somehow, and I am surely in no position to determine who, if anybody, is getting fleeced here.

Except probably Milton and Blake.  Picture them sitting together in the celestial city. William says to John, “Greenblatt is of the devil’s party; do you think he knows it?”