‘Reading’ reprints

The writer examines why a reprint is more than just a copy of a well-known or popular book.

Updated - May 19, 2016 11:42 am IST

Published - March 01, 2014 04:58 pm IST

A publisher can recount unsaid stories about the reprint of books from a market perspective. It may help us inquire into the sense of taste that creates a demand for certain books. Photo: Special Arrangement

A publisher can recount unsaid stories about the reprint of books from a market perspective. It may help us inquire into the sense of taste that creates a demand for certain books. Photo: Special Arrangement

We know that a reprint serves a different function in the context of its fresh publication. But will it change the existing modes of reading the text? Or will it circulate in the market merely as a copy?

We are all familiar with such changes in the case of critical essays included in different anthologies. This is a simplified way of understanding reprint. But an Indian reprint of Western intellectuals like Derrida’s Writing and Difference or Deleuze and Guattari’s Anti-Oedipus or Foucault’s Lecture series or self-help books, though aimed at easy access at affordable price, serve yet another purpose. Western philosophers/writers are domesticated through the ‘Indian’ reprints.

A publisher can recount unsaid stories about the reprint of books from a market perspective. It may help us inquire into the sense of taste that creates a demand for certain books. Take for instance the multiple editions of popular fiction or anniversary editions of non-fiction like Jonathan Livingston Seagull or science books like Stephen Hawking’s A Brief History of Time . In such cases, the details of the reprint may award the book the status of a ‘classic’.

If reprints are just a matter of demand and supply, why should the first edition of famous books (like that of Shakespeare’s) become relics in archives and museums? Why should certain earlier editions sell for lakhs and crores at auctions? Who can deny that a reprint of an archival material in a neat book form challenges the historian’s use of the materials? Yes, the material in brittle form adds to the historical value of the material!

But how can the reprint by itself affect our reading? It is the para-textual features — a new introduction, a new cover, the paper quality, the price, the publisher’s note on the reprint, the blurb, the illustrations — that open new ways of reading. Such para-textual aspects, Gerard Genette says, always have “a materialized message”, “a positioning”. This positioning of the material plays a crucial role in determining the reading of reprints.

This seems to suggest that a reprint serves more than the purpose of being a copy of the book as it affects the way text relates itself to new contexts. It, thus, invites us to think of the function of reprints and new possibilities of reading reprints. A new introduction to a reprint (or the mention of an award) may alter the reading of a book or the other works by the author. We may say that this cannot happen in the reprints without new introductions. But the issue is not that simple. The new cover of Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance made it purely a philosophical text against the author’s insistence that it should not be linked with Zen philosophy and motorcycles.

Tamil fiction writer Sujatha once said that he stopped writing ‘pocket novels’ (a cheap low-priced print for popular readers) when he saw a reader in the train throwing away the book after reading it. But a neat and costly reprint of the same novel became part of modern Tamil fiction. Such events abound in the history of publishing.

A reprint may also play an explicitly political role. The impact of, say, the Dalit movement may create a demand for reprinting Mulk Raj Anand’s Untouchable or Thakazhi Sivasankaran Pillai’s Thottiyin Magan , a response to the renewed context of the caste question.

Speaking at the 10th anniversary of the publication of her canonical work, Karukku , in 2004, writer Bama said: “It was true that I was regarded as a child playfully carrying a flag in a civil rights movement. But Over the past 10 years I became aware of the activities of the Dalit movement and its impact on the public sphere. Today this is reflected in my writing and also affects the way we all read Karukku ”.

The first Macmillan paperback edition of Karukku (translated by Lakshmi Holmstrom) appeared in 2004 and was read in the context of the Durban conference against racism that gave visibility to the Dalit question at the international level. The new Oxford reprint (in hard cover), published in 2012, with a postscript and a special note by Bama, is located in a totally new context. Her note records the text’s reception since its publication in Tamil in 1994. The reprint has now become a meta-text that records the reading process of the local community along with other modes of reading. It thus resists being an ‘object’ that foregrounds a Dalit victimisation. The painting on the cover, suggesting the idea of ‘life cycle’ against a bright background, differs significantly from the cover of the first edition in dark green and the blue victim’s image framed at the centre. The new cover signifies an assertion and a sense of freedom that the author records in her note.

When Dalit writer Imayam’s long short story ‘Pethavan’ (about the elopement of a Dalit boy with a Most Backward Caste girl) appeared in a Tamil journal, Uyirmai, a few months before the Ilavarasan-Divya elopement, it was read as a story about the continued tension between the Dalit and other backward castes even post-2000, i.e., after the Dalit parties entered mainstream politics. The reprint, published as a small booklet, was seen as Dalit assertion and celebrated in different parts of the state. After the death of Ilavarasan, when the new reprint was given as a thambulum in a marriage, it becomes an apocalyptic text suggesting the return of the old order of things.

Today, identifying new possibilities of reading becomes a struggle against the established reading practices. Refusing to read the text’s response to a context is denying the text of its capacity to mean other than what we desire to see in it.

The writer teaches English at Madras University. Email: razhagu@gmail.com

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