This article appeared in the Columbus Dispatch on Sunday, December 21, 2008. This article was the inspiration for this website.
Charles Dickens was a micromanager.
Not content with writing a dozen and a half of the most cherished novels in the English language, he also produced short stories, lectures, poetry and a play — and worked tirelessly to correct many of the social ills of the day. Oh, and he also stuck his nose into details of the publishing business.
Dickens collaborated with his publisher, Chapman & Hall, to choose the typeface and margins for his books. He handpicked artists and vetted every illustration that appeared in the original editions of his novels.
After his death in 1870, Dickens was ill-served by publishers, who churned out shoddy editions of his works. Bindings were often third-rate, and illustrations were inappropriate or nonexistent.
On the eve of World War II, Nonesuch Press set about remedying the situation, obtaining the original woodblock and steel plates from Chapman & Hall and publishing the complete works of Dickens in 24 volumes.
Arthur Waugh, president of the Dickens Fellowship when the books came out in 1937, claimed, “It will never be possible for a more complete and perfect edition (of Dickens) to be put on the market.”
Nonesuch never reissued its limited-edition run of the Dickens books.
Peter Mayer, owner of Overlook Press in New York, purchased the rights to the Nonesuch catalog in 2005 and decided it was high time to revisit the definitive Dickens. The publisher recently released nine books — available individually or in two sets.
Mayer spoke recently with The Dispatch by e-mail:
Q: Why publish the Nonesuch Dickens now?
A: We issued Nonesuch Dickens first in a group of six and now with an additional three, and we have organized our publication to coincide with the BBC television shows, which are broadcast on the PBS Masterpiece series, hosted by Laura Linney. (The series will run from February to May on PBS.)
Q: Is the Nonesuch Dickens an investment?
A: Well, it’s probably a good investment to buy these books; they generally appreciate in value. Of the original books published by Nonesuch, the edition that was limited to 877 copies, based on recent auction prices, is about $5,000. However, the Nonesuch Dickens is the most readable and beautiful edition available. The books are bound in leather and bound in linen. I love paperbacks, but this is one for physical book lovers as much as readers.
Q: Why does Dickens endure, do you think?
A: I think the thing about Dickens is he is a brilliant storyteller who creates characters who are truly unique. They appear on his pages, but they are so famous — whether it’s Pip, Oliver Twist, Scrooge or David Copperfield — that they enter our lives. But underlying it all was Dickens’ extraordinary social concerns, and, therefore, the books are loved all over the world.
Q: Do you feel a responsibility as a publisher to keep great books in print?
A: Well, every publisher hopes his books are read, not only in the season they are published but as part of a backlist. Dickens is quintessentially backlist, as there are other editions available, in paperback, etc.
What we realized as we embarked on the Nonesuch project is that we had to make the books truly brilliant examples of the bookmakers’ art, and because they are hardcover they have to be so beautiful that they represented good value for the money.
Q: What other gems will you publish from the Nonesuch catalog?
A: We are thinking of publishing the Nonesuch Shakespeare and the Nonesuch Bible. These books cost a fortune to produce, so we really have to take our time when we embark on these projects.
by Bill Eichenberger, Columbus Dispatch