Written by John Calvin Pierce
I’m a book collector, and like many collectors, I don’t always read the books I end up with. At least a third of the books stacked on my shelf exist unturned and untouched. But more often than I’d readily admit, I find myself drawn to a work that I’ve read tens or hundreds of times—even though there’s nothing new in there, even though all the pages are marked and dog-eared, even though the first sentence is practically burned into the backs of my eyelids and shimmers like a neon sign when I lie down to sleep. It could be a security thing—maybe it soothes the mind to see something familiar, to hold the same syllables in the mouth like a prayer.
This mollifying habit of mine keeps the collector part of me always on the lookout for new versions and printings of those works I know well, and when I find one, resistance is futile. I own at least five different copies of Leaves of Grass: some based on the original edition and some printings of the deathbed edition, three hardcovers and two paperbacks, one bright purple with purple-dyed page ends, one green clothbound with a yellow ribbon for a bookmark, one tan and white like sand, or skin. But the differences between these editions go beyond their covers and color stories—every book is printed in a specific font (this is probably not new information to you). These font choices are indeed aesthetic and superficial; they do not change the content, the style of the writing, the rhyme or rhythm. But when I read Whitman’s verse in the larger, globular text found in my purple edition of Leaves of Grass, his voice in my mind is louder, triumphant even, a barbaric yawp when compared to the small, taut, angular text of the green clothbound edition—reading that one feels like he is whispering in the dark, his thoughts spilling out silently like secret magma over the floor of the sea.
Though the same words are written by the same writer, the printing and formatting choices which vary from edition to edition produce tangible and consequential results in the mind of the reader, who hears this voice flung out of space and time, across the years and many fields and mountains between here and New York. And in this crossing of time and space, the character of the verse and the voice who reads it into our innermost ear may change and swirl, at once a young and eager boy and also an aged teacher, depending on the physical shape of the writing. These perceptual differences between editions do matter; if they did not, then I would be a madman for owning five copies of the same manuscript, a wasteful and covetous slob, even. But I hold each of them differently in my heart, I turn to each in its own time, I hear the whispers of a confession tonight and the scream of victory and freedom tomorrow, even in the same lines. This variation breathes life into familiar texts and makes them seem new and present. So if you, like me, feel compelled to buy yourself a sixth copy of your favorite book, take comfort from the fact that you are not alone in your obsession, and that the new voice you hear speaking in your ear will only enhance and enrich your understanding of the beloved text.