Thursday, November 13, 2008

Oxford World's Classics!

Can we take a moment from the hurly-burly of our normal blogging to pause and praise the the heyday of Oxford World's Classics?

That heyday took place long after the establishment of the press at the start of the 20th century - and a large part of it is aesthetic, having nothing to do with the critical and scholarly issues that should be the only scratch-marks of any press. Nevertheless! In the late 1980s and early 1990s, Oxford World's Classics greatly expanded their line of titles and hugely improved their look - the spines and cover-backgrounds went from white to vibrant yellow, and the choice of cover-paintings greatly improved. It was a sight to see.

For a brief, wonderful interlude, your bookstores shelves were filled with these titles, often crowding out the frumpier-looking Penguin Classics. All the standard classics were here, from Homer to the Bronte girls, but there were lots and lots of stranger, less expected titles, from the Kalevala to Elizabethan prose works to seminal 'horror' titles like Dracula or The Invisible Man sporting movie-still covers. There was Austen and Dickens and Scott and Thackeray, and there was, for the first time, the whole of Musketeer novels of Dumas, and there was a splendidly-annotated collection of Sherlock Holmes, plus a generous helping of American classics.

And then there were the glories of the press: the extra-large Golden Bough, for instance, or the Annotated Bible (still far and away the best Bible to own), and what is surely the crowning achievement of the Oxford World's Classics of this period, the complete, gorgeously produced, exhaustively annotated run of Anthony Trollope.

The bindings weren't as resilient as Penguins, it's true, but the scholarly apparatus was often more current and sometimes more lively, and even when they weren't, the Oxford volume of virtually anybody made a worthy counter-balance to the Penguin.

And Penguin had the last laugh: in the mid-90s, they sued Oxford University Press for copyright infringement: that 'O'-shaped colophon on the bar with the word 'Classics' came too close, apparently, to the long-established Penguin Classics look. So the entirety of the Oxford line was pulled, at ruinous expense to the press. Trade-sized white-spined paperbacks of a fraction of their titles were put back on the market, but nothing like the old variety remained, and suddenly those vibrant yellow spines became collector's items when they were found in used bookstores. Certainly I keep an eye out for them, on the rare occasions when I enter a used bookstore!

So here's to a wonderful run, brief though it was! To Oxford World's Classics: for a while, they made yellow the most fun color in the bookstore!

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