And in the end I gave myself a gift for my fiftieth birthday.
I wanted a good book, one that I’ll be able to take along for the remaining years of my life.
A book I’ll be able to read and re-read, and that I’ll have placed in my casket when the day comes.
So, I have this mild fetishism for the Everyman Library books. They are beautiful and sturdy and come with this Victorian conceit: a library of classics in classy edition for the common readers.
Now that’s something.
It was conceived in 1905 by London publisher Joseph Malaby Dent, whose goal was to create a 1,000 volume library of world literature that was affordable for, and that appealed to, every kind of person, from students to the working classes to the cultural elite. Dent followed the design principles and to a certain extent the style established by William Morris in his Kelmscott Press.
Despite my fetishism, I only have three volumes in the series: a selection of Flashman Papers by George MacDonald Fraser, and the two volumes containing the complete short stories of Ray Bradbury and the complete stories of Roald Dahl.
So I went on Amazon and browsed the stacks and emerged with a short list of five volumes, and who am I trying to kid here, it is obvious I’ll get each one of them sooner or later1.
But right now, as I said, I was looking for something symbolic – and a good thick book at the same time.
So I bought myself a copy of the Everyman Arabian Nights.
My obsession for the Arabian Nights is well documented.
I consider this collection of stories to be one of the most powerful roots of fantasy literature, and an artifact from a more civilized time (we’ll get to that). I have a number of different editions:
- the 1931 Italian Nerbini edition, with its somewhat archaic, upper-class and overly polite old Italian, and the gorgeous illustrations of Scarpelli.
- the serviceable Bloomsbury paperback, with a selection of stories translated and annotated by Sir Richard Burton, including all the naughty bits.
- the Misin Mahdi volume collecting the first Arab edition of the stories, cleaned up of all later European additions and manipulations, and rendered in the Italian language by master storyteller Vincenzo Cerami
- a cheap pocket Dover Thrift selection of Arabian Night classic tales, Aladdin and Sinbad and all the rest
The Everyman edition, curated by Wen-chin Ouyang, is different, and makes for a nice addition to my collection.
The stories in this 1000-pages volume are selected from 19th century translations: Burton, of course, but also Edward Lane (1801-1876), John Payne (1842-1916) and Joseph-Charles Mardrus (1868-1949).
Described as “controversial” by some reviewers, the Everyman edition goes back to the 19th century texts, and shrugs off philology for the sake of… period authenticity?
So what if these stories are not true Arabian tales, but rather an idiosyncratic mix of originals and later European addenda, elaborations and remixes?
The purpose of the book, in the words of the editor, was to capture the feeling of first discovering these stories, back when in the 19th century they swept over Europe causing a true fever for the Orient.
a taste of what it was like to read The Arabian Nights in the 19th century, as it was a crucial period in the development of not just storytelling but how we viewed the world
To further enforce this flash from the past feeling, the book includes the artwork and design by Victorian engraver William Harvey.
It is going to be a pleasure, delving into these stories.
I think that more than controversial, the reprinting of the old stories, unexpurgated and hybrid, celebrates the power of these narratives, their function as bridges between cultures.
It’s not cultural appropriation, it’s telling good stories – and you can’t tell a good story if you don’t respect it.
Will I really have this book buried with me when the time comes?
But I guess I might make the life of future archaeologists a lot more fun should I take along the Flashman books instead. Or the Roald Dahl stories.
- in case you are interested, the other shortlisted titles were the complete short stories of Mark Twain, a selection of 300 Tang poems, Bulgakov’s The Master and Margarita and Dumas’ The Three Musketeers (and yes, I am aware of the perversity of reading a French classic in English). ↩