The Internet age has given new value and impetus to the notion of a universal library of literature. In the past we have had Everyman’s Library, which at one point actually reached its goal of a ‘library of a thousand volumes’, Penguin Classics, and, at a price less accessible for most, the French Pléiade library and the Library of America. Today, with e-readers and notably the Kindle, for the first time and by a miracle of literary nanotechnology, an individual can own a multitudinous library of classics, portable, searchable and all in one place.
The most salient example, at least in English (French has a similar venture in the Arvensa series) is offered by Delphi Classics, whose collection now runs to several hundred volumes, all Kindle-readable and downloadable at knockdown prices. This post is not intended as advertising for Delphi: it will offer, rather, a critical overview of the existing collection. However, there is no point in not divulging that their website is at https://www.delphiclassics.com/ and that their e-books can be ordered through Amazon.
Delphi is based in the UK, although the prices on the website are in dollars. For copyright reasons some titles are available in, e.g., Europe but not the US and viceversa. However, the vast majority of titles are universally available, and since I live in Europe this article will concentrate on e-books available there. Copyright also means that Delphi’s list can only feature writings that are in the public domain in whatever market, a circumstance that entails certain limitations going beyond the list itself: since nothing originally published later than around 1920 can be included, this means that non-English works can only feature in older translations, and also that Delphi’s admirable practice of including a selection of critical texts at the end of most volumes is constrained by the similar non-availability of any criticism less than a century old.
The range of titles is continuously expanding. Not all are in English: there are currently 38 volumes in other languages, the best-represented being German (25 titles), with French standing at 9 and Italian and Spanish at 2 each (5 of the German volumes and one of the French are translations). Some of the English-language volumes are wholly or partly bilingual, with at least the author’s most important works (in some cases everything) appearing in both original and translation. This is particularly the case with Greek and Latin classics such as Plato, Aristotle, Homer or Sappho, and also enriches the volumes devoted to major European writers including Dante, Cervantes, and Victor Hugo.
For a collection of this kind the selection of texts can never be completely neutral and will inevitably reflect certain criteria and not others (although of course the criteria can be changed for future additions). Copyright is of course the most binding criterion of all, meaning that the most recent authors present are (for European readers) the likes of D.H. Lawrence, Virginia Woolf, Katharine Mansfield and F. Scott Fitzgerald. Women writers are fairly represented, as are children’s literature and genre fiction (with perhaps surprising inclusions such as E. Nesbit or George Macdonald). The most strongly represented period is the nineteenth century, not only its novelists and poets – both British and American – but sages such as Ruskin, Morris, Carlyle and Darwin (but not their European contemporaries such as Marx or Hegel). By contrast, there is a visible paucity of philosophers and thinkers from other periods (no Hobbes, Locke or Machiavelli), with the salient exception of the Greco-Roman world, whose literature and philosophy are copiously represented.
One important point needs making: there is a conspicuous lack of texts from outside the Western/European world: the compilers’ sights seem not to extend further than Russia. The only scriptural text to be found is the King James Bible, so no Koran, and no Ramayana, Mahabharata or Bhagavad Gita; and no Confucius or Lao Tzu either. Perhaps surprisingly, also absent is the Thousand and One Nights; nor does the range of poets extend to Omar Khayyam or Rumi. This could lead to charges of ethnocentric bias, which sooner or later it may prove in Delphi’s interest to rectify.
Allowing for the above implied criteria, omissions of individual authors are by now relatively few, and it is worth noting that Delphi’s site includes a ‘forthcoming’ section which allows us to know that certain omissions (Bunyan, Petronius, Ariosto) will be made good soon. One might cavil at the absence of, say, Henry Vaughan, Thomas de Quincey or J.M. Synge, but most important, surely, is what is there rather than what is not.
Not every volume is 100% complete (that for P.B. Shelley lacks his translations of Plato; that for John Donne does not include his prose works). On the other hand, many are remarkably inclusive: George Eliot scholars will no doubt be delighted to be able to access her rarely found translation of Ludwig Feuerbach! Certain volumes are particularly well enriched. The e-book for Shakespeare includes an apparatus containing not only criticism but apocryphal plays, extracts from the sources, Charles and Mary Lamb’s prose ‘Tales from Shakespeare’, a glossary and more. The Dickens volume has peripheral matter including contemporary stage adaptations, a continuation of ‘Edwin Drood’ and the Forster biography. Homer is honoured with multiple translations of both ‘Iliad’ and ‘Odyssey’.
The volumes are well-presented (with apposite illustrations), searchable, user-friendly and informative. They can only encourage e-generation readers to venture into the world of the literary classics. The verdict has to be, at least, ‘almost perfect’, though it is to be hoped that Delphi will soon start to look beyond the Western world. I do, however, have a question regarding the critical apparatuses. Copyright means that these have to be confined to nineteenth- and early twentieth-century critics: the likes of George Saintsbury might not seem the most attuned to contemporary critical movements, from deconstruction through gender criticism to eco-criticism. Paradoxically, the availability of the Delphi editions could lead to a revival in criticism directed on the literary text rather than interpreting it in the light of ideology of whatever kind. A collection like this may yet exercise a shaping hand, in unexpected ways, on the future of reading and literary study.
*Note added 19 Jan 2016: see additional comments in entry for 18 Jan 2016