The Aura of Books
“That which withers in the age of mechanical reproduction is the aura of the work of art.”
For German philosopher Walter Benjamin, original works of art hold an “aura”, a property that is the art’s “presence in time and space, its unique existence at the place where it happens to be” (Benjamin, 1936). An aura is a product of the art’s uniqueness and authenticity, and its relationship with its history. He defined the authenticity of art as “the essence of all that is transmissible from its beginning, ranging from its substantive duration to its testimony to the history which it has experienced” (Benjamin, 1936).
For paintings, the “authentic” would be the worn-over-time, oil on canvas artwork, not photographic reproductions, prints, or forgeries. An “authentic” book would be the original manuscript, before it has passed through the hands of editors, publishers and the machinery of printers. Books lose their aura when they are mass-produced and distributed, or new editions are published.
Unfortunately, the only way to distribute print books is mass-production. Sales of classic literature has gone up 10% since 2010, so the re-publishing of these books is of new interest to publishers (Walsh, 2016). What, then, have book publishers done to recapture the aura in newer editions of classic literature?
Authenticity can come from mistakes and “happy” accidents. To this day, collectors still place value on first edition copies of famous books (Davies, accessed 2017). Original manuscripts are highly valued and kept in museums and libraries (Thorpe, 2015). First-edition books are not printed on a large scale and can include typos that were fixed in subsequent printing runs, as well as other unique qualities (Davies, 2016). Rare book firm Peter Harrington describes the first-edition as “the physical manifestation of a particular moment in the life of a novel … it can also reflect a significant time in the wider culture” (Massey, 2011). This perspective is curiously similar to Benjamin’s.
First-edition copies of The Great Gatsby can sell for just over $244,000 AUD, provided that its famous dust-jacket accompanies the book (Rothman, 2013).
The first-edition book itself will only sell for approximately $9,000 AUD (Tucker, 2013). In the first edition of the book, the dust cover contained a typo; instead of “Jay Gatsby”, the name was typed “jay Gatsby” (with a lowercase ‘J’); a key signifier of an authentic first edition, usually corrected with a stamp (Tucker, 2013).
Another typo exists on page 205 of first editions; “sick and tired” is instead printed “sick in tired” (Peter Harrington, 2017). One signed first-edition of The Great Gatsby (without a dust-jacket) is on sale through Peter Harrington for $446,000 AUD (Peter Harrington, 2017), and contains a message from F. Scott Fitzgerald.
First-editions of other classics are also worth thousands. Many American first-editions of Moby Dick were lost in a warehouse fire in 1853. Now, these editions of the classic can be worth around $75,000 AUD (Davies, 2013). A rare, signed first-edition of To Kill A Mockingbird was sold on AbeBooks for a little over $31,000 AUD (Davies, 2013). Taking into consideration the rarity of some first-editions, Benjamin’s aura—comprised of uniqueness and authenticity—can easily be applicable to books like the ones mentioned above.
These books are hardly accessible to the average classical literature reader, so mass-production of classics is now popular. What might Benjamin say about mass-produced collections of these books (especially in the case of Penguin Classics or Vintage); or the dozens of editions of the Harry Potter series; or Roald Dahl and Dr Seuss books; or about constructed authenticity, as opposed to authenticity created through happenstance and history? More interestingly, how do book publishers attempt to inject originality into books which have been published and republished thousands of times? What is unique or special about the 37th version of Green Eggs and Ham?
In the 50th anniversary edition of Fahrenheit 451, author Ray Bradbury reflects in his introduction:
"What is there new to be said about Fahrenheit 451? I have written three or four introductions in the past thirty years trying to explain where the novel came from and how it finally arrived.” (Bradbury, 2008, p. 1)
In this statement, Bradbury captures the pursuit of every publisher of every recent edition of classic literature: “what is there new to be said?” For every new-edition classic shed from the printers, there must be something new to offer. It is cheaper to print books which are out of copyright, as the books are tried and tested sellers, but to what can we attribute their renewed success?
War and Peace sold 12,000 copies in 2015, which rose to 54,000 copies in 2016 due to its TV adaptation (Walsh, 2016). Sales for Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale increased by 200% after the election of Trump as US president, and rose again following its TV reworking (Barnett, 2017; Liptak, 2017).
For bookseller Juniper Books, Penguin classics with illustrations by Coralie Bickford-Smith are making the rounds in bookstores as gifts for the classic literature lover (Juniper Books, 2017). These editions invoke the sense of age and timelessness of classics, much like the Everyman hardbacks of the 1920-40's.
David Campbell, the publisher who re-launched Everyman in 1991, said, “Publishers don't reinvent the wheel. Most of my best ideas have come from seeing what's been done before” (Campbell cited in Miller, 2006). This is telling of today’s classics market. Penguin is now also publishing Pocket Penguins; new editions of classics, rebranded simplistically, colour-coded, with a single sentence as the blurb. The audience for curated literature is growing, and a trusted brand such as Penguin increases the sales of the same stories (Walsh, 2016).
Introductions and notes at the beginning of books are Oxford University Press's (OUP's) method of gaining attention in student markets for classics (Walsh, 2016). OUP World Classics is republishing their previous classics with new “unique content”, such as a new translation or new presentation of an author’s collected works.
By creating exclusive editions—revamping cover art; tailoring designs to audiences; including introductions, forewords, and notes; printing illustrated, limited, collector’s or anniversary editions—book publishers can justify re-publishing the same “eternal truth” stories which continue to circulate (Mangan, 2011).
Therefore, marketing manipulates a book’s aura by adding something new to the text. In the same way time builds the aura of an oil painting, time allows publishers to transform reliable classics into “new” pieces, fit for societal demand.
For philosopher and existentialist Jean-Paul Sartre’s character in Nausea, Antoine Roquentin, art possesses a timeless quality which exists beyond its mode of communication:
If I were to snatch that record from the turn-table [sic] which is holding it and if I were to break it in two, I wouldn’t reach it. It is beyond—always beyond something, beyond a voice, beyond a violin note. … the melody is absolutely untouched by this little stuttering of the needle on the record. … the melody stays the same (Sartre, 2010, p. 249).
Perhaps a part of this timelessness carries the aura of the original works with the book, regardless of publisher. So instead, if we were to listen to Sartre and not Benjamin, the aura of classical literature exists beyond the packaging. No matter how often the same stories return to bookshelves in different forms, classic literature will remain constant underneath new illustrations and cover spreads.
Bradbury, R. (2008). Fahrenheit 451. London, UK: Harper Voyager.
Sartre, J. (2010). Nausea. Victoria, Australia: Penguin Group.