Acquisition: Native SonTo me, the joy of literature is not just what I'm currently reading, but also what I will read next. The latter involves both mulling over books I currently have access to, either on my own shelves or the library's, but also ones to be acquired. Due to cost and storage, I've tried to be prudent about what books I buy, only buying new those ones which I expect to cherish and re-read over the long term, with the more speculative remainder being acquired used or heavily discounted.
Though I visit chain stores frequently, there I'm almost always just browsing, checking out titles I've heard about and want to explore further, but without buying. It's only in our local used book store, Book Market, that I regularly take the plunge and buy. Since I do enjoy the thrill of the hunt nearly as much as the reading itself, I've decided to periodically mention and discuss new acquisitions here.
When I'm at Book Market I focus almost exclusively on two fiction sections - first, contemporary literary fiction, and second and more increasingly, classic fiction. Yesterday I found several copies of Richard Wright's Native Son, one of them the very edition that I first read back in high school. But the first two copies were what I only recently learned is the standard but expurgated text. I had seen and browsed the "restored" edition at Borders, but the copy I reviewed there didn't seem to fully explain what was originally deleted or why. This had me intrigued. I loved the book back in high school, and though I was sure I had read it a second time during the intervening years I didn't own it, and thus have been on the lookout for a copy for several years. But knowing there was a "restored" edition available kept from from wanting either of the "expurgated" copies I saw yesterday. I was about to resign myself to buying nothing and to keep looking, when I turned and, browsing the pile of books on the other side of the aisle - the store has such a huge inventory in a limited space that such piles are everywhere - I was thrilled to find a third copy of Native Son, this one being the restored edition. Of course I bought it.
Reading through the appendix, as it turns out the book was originally published by Harper, in conjunction with the Book of the Month Club. (It would eventually be the first Book of the Month Club selection by an African American author.) It seems as if Harper was amenable to publishing the book consistent with Wright's artistic vision, but the club (presumably fearing its members' sensitive natures or even government censors) took exception to several passages, most notably a sex-tinged scene in a movie theater balcony towards the beginning of the story. Wright acquiesed, probably grudgingly, to the club's wishes, and completely rewrote the theater scene. The restored version of the book represents the final manuscript that Wright prepared prior to publisher intervention, and brings back not only the original theater scene but also the other passages changed by the publisher, all of which are included in an appendix for reference. Based on the relatively brief lengths of the changed passages, it doesn't appear that the two versions of the book are dramatically different, although the editor indicates that the original theater scene is critically important to the narrative, and that its restoration makes for a significantly stronger book overall. We'll see about that - it's hard to imagine the standard text being dramatically improved upon - but it will still be nice to read the book in a version that is faithful to the writer's original conception.
When I read this in college, the prof didn't care which version we bought. As you can imagine, those who'd read the 'censored' copy were pretty surprised when someone casually mentioned the theater escapades in class the next day. It was interesting having both versions influencing discussion, but you're right, it makes minor substantive difference.
Posted by: beth at Jan 26, 2009 2:00:45 PM