If I could run any business without fear of losing everything, it would be a comfortable bookshop that carried numerous classic literature, philosophy, and critical theory titles (new and used). There would be a café inside and there would be an area for a group of people to sit and discuss what they read. I would be sure to stock many, many Norton Critical Editions.

I’m in the weird position of being pretty poorly read but also very snobby about literature. I’m one of those people that will say something like, “I don’t really read much…contemporary fiction.” (Snob rant: it is not “modern” fiction. It is “contemporary.” Modern fiction is written by Modernists and you just cannot be a Modernist after World War II.)

Image credit: Kate Hiscock

Image credit: Kate Hiscock

It is almost physically impossible for me to resist a Norton Critical Edition. (You may have noticed my bio photo is me planting a big one on my Norton copy of As I Lay Dying) Sometimes when I can’t afford them, I still carry them around the bookstore with me. I go on Norton hunts, sometimes scanning the shelves just to see if there are any available. There’s a local used bookstore that follows the “packed-to-the-gills” model that has not only a whole “classic literature” section, but is home to almost too many Nortons (yes, there is such a thing when there are more than a dozen copies of Dickens’ Hard Times).

There are a lot of publishers out there that make classic literature not only affordable but available. Oxford and Penguin have a huge selection of classic literature, often annotated and often cheap. Penguin is one of the only (if not the only) publisher that offers Richardson’s Clarissa unabridged. Broadview Press features many titles that are hard to find and also provide excellent context for the cultural forces at work during the author’s time period that appear in the novel. I know from my class on the Victorian Social World that only Norton and Barnes & Noble publishers offer William Thackeray’s Vanity Fair with all of Thackeray’s illustrations.

The author’s collection of Norton Critical Editions—a “reading rainbow” if you will.

Norton Critical Editions feature the original text, biographical information on the author, the text’s contexts, and excerpted criticism from the time of publication and beyond. With older authors, this is a great thing because other famous authors have probably commented on them. NCEs have saved me for presentations and papers. There is a wide breadth of criticism and each excerpt is short enough that you can shop around for the most useful sources. (Although once I needed more of the text and had to go up to the fourth floor periodical room, which was the scariest place on campus.)

If you don’t have access to the magical wonder that is a university library, you can get a good dose of critical texts in a volume available online or at many brick-and-mortar stores. Because many colleges use them for courses, there are many used copies available at reduced prices. And because we know writers should read everything, all the information available in a Norton Critical Edition is a great tool.

Having a Norton in hand can make writing an academic paper much easier, but it can also lead you to influences you could use in your own writing. The “Contexts” section includes texts that influence the author. Maybe reading through this section of Northanger Abbey will show you something that inspires you in its own right. Maybe a bit of Ann Radcliffe will reveal that Gothic tone that’s missing from your not-stupid vampire novel—or maybe reveal its opposite. If writing historical fiction is your bag, I bet Nortons and Broadviews would be invaluable. Nobody writes in a vacuum—studying influences (or at least knowing what they are) is important.

The most recent addition to my Norton collection is T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land. I used to have a fear of poetry so I don’t know much about this poem, T.S. Eliot, Modernist poetry, or poetry in general. But I am not afraid. The Norton of The Waste Land offers a huge amount of supplemental information. In fact, the text of poem is only twenty pages long, while the whole book pushes three hundred pages. With that much information, I feel like I’m in good hands.

What do you think — am I a snob? Are Nortons elitist or are they the best thing ever? Or do you prefer Broadviews?