Monday, January 20, 2014

Publisher profile: In praise of the Delphi Classics

Classics done right
One of the great things about reading classic literature in e-book format is that a lot of it is free. At sites like Project Gutenberg, you can download dozens of works by your favorite dead authors without spending a dime. However, it can be a pain to download all those individual files, and how do you keep them all organized? Free doesn’t necessarily equal convenient. If you’re after a good, comprehensive collection of an author’s work, it’s worth spending a few bucks for a Kindle file that gathers that author’s writings into a user-friendly package. Of course, not all electronic collections are created equal. Some of them are even shoddier than the public domain source files. That’s why anyone with an e-book reader who loves classic literature should be familiar with the Delphi Classics. They make the most convenient, best edited, most complete collections of classic literature available on the market today.

If you’re a lover of classic books, the Delphi Classics puts their files together the way you would if you had the chance. They make a concerted effort to amass as much of an author’s work as they possibly can, even the most obscure bits. Often they include additional biographical or critical works on the author in question. They arrange all this material in an orderly manner, either chronologically or categorically, and link these works to a user-friendly interactive table of contents. Among the contents and title pages you might find a photograph of the author’s boyhood home, a scan of a first edition cover, or a movie poster from a film adaptation. Each individual book within a collection gets a little spoiler-free introductory page telling you a bit about the work or its publication. This is immensely important when you’ve already read the major works of an author and are willing to give a try to books you’ve never heard of. It’s fun just to browse through the descriptions, hunting for a buried treasure.  

When looking through a Delphi Classics file, you get the feeling that someone actually took the time to read it. We’ve all seen e-book files created from scanned books that are riddled with errors. The Delphi Classics consistently produce the cleanest texts I’ve seen in classic e-books. Typographical errors aren’t totally absent, but there’s probably no more than what you would find in the original printed editions. The Delphi Classics are to e-books what the Library of America is to printed books. These are the best classics collections out there, and definitely worth the price tag of a few bucks each.

As with the Library of America, the only complaint I have about the Delphi Classics is that I wish they offered more of my favorite authors. I hope they eventually offer more books by American realists like Frank Norris, Theodore Dreiser, Upton Sinclair, or Hamlin Garland. Their thorough approach only lends itself well to writers with a large body of work, and all those works must be in the public domain. With foreign authors, even if their works are in the public domain, the English translations may not be, so English language authors make up the majority of their catalog. To some extent, therefore, the Delphi Classics are limited by the material available, though so far they’ve managed to put together a stunning digital library. Here’s a brief look at a small sampling of their offerings:

Complete Works of James Fenimore Cooper
The Leatherstocking Tales (The Last of the Mohicans and other adventures of Natty Bumpo) are featured up front, of course, but this great American author wrote so much more, and it’s all here, fiction and nonfiction, even the most obscure. It’s a joy to browse through the descriptive introductions of these novels just to get an idea of the scope of Cooper’s body of work. I highly recommend the forgotten treasure Wyandotté. Two biographies of Cooper are also included, as well as a section on criticism that even includes Mark Twain’s scathing diatribe on The Deerslayer.

Complete Works of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle
Conan Doyle’s prodigious body of work is arranged categorically by Sherlock Holmes works, Professor Challenger stories (The Lost World and The Poison Belt), historical novels, and other novels. This is followed by the non-Holmes short stories, arranged by collection, with chronological and alphabetical indexes. But there’s more! An opera, five plays, three books of poetry, and a whole mess of nonfiction. Inexplicably missing are the other three Challenger tales. Having read most of the Holmes works years ago, I’ve had a lot of fun exploring Conan Doyle’s Holmes-less works, discovering lesser-known gems like The Doings of Raffles Haw and The Tragedy of the Korosko.

Works of Alexandre Dumas
You’ll notice that the word “Complete” is missing from the title of this one. Dumas and his workshop cranked out hundreds of books, if not thousands, many of which aren’t available in English. I doubt a true “Complete Works” has ever been put together, even in French. This collection has 30 Dumas novels, including all of the d’Artagnan Romances, the Cycle des Valois, and the Memoires d’un Medecin series. The Count of Monte Cristo is also here, of course, but so is the sequel The Son of Monte Cristo by Jules Lermina. It also features a few short stories and some non-fiction, but no plays.

Complete Works of Victor Hugo
This collection provides all of Hugo’s novels in both English and French. (I can’t wait to read Ninety-Three again!) His complete poetry is included in French, along with a huge selection of poems that have been translated into English. The next category, entitled “Selected Non-Fiction” gives the reader the idea that this “Complete Works” is not really complete, but 99% of readers are probably only after the fiction anyway. There’s also a section of criticism featuring writings on Hugo by such authors as Charles Dickens, Henry James, Robert Louis Stevenson, and Alfred, Lord Tennyson, as well as The Memoirs of Victor Hugo by the man himself. 

Complete Works of Jack London (Click title to read complete review)
I own a few different editions of London’s “Complete Works,” because none of them are ever truly complete, but this one is the most complete that I’ve ever seen. It even includes his poetry, his plays, and all the uncollected short stories. All that’s missing are a few of his most obscure essays, and the posthumous novel The Assassination Bureau, Ltd., which wasn’t published until 1963. An added bonus is the biography The Book of Jack London, written by his second wife Charmian Kittredge London. Unfortunately, the short stories are arranged alphabetically, rather than by chronological date of publication or by collection. I think that’s a mistake, as works from the same collection or time period tend to share similar style and subject matter. To jumble them all together into one big bunch obscures any perspective into the trajectory of London’s career.

Complete Works of Herman Melville
A disclaimer up front explains that this collection is missing Billy Budd and two short stories (“The Two Temples” and “Daniel Orme”), due to copyright restrictions. Delphi promises they will offer a free update once those works enter the public domain. In the meantime, while you wait, you can read every other novel, short story, poem, and essay he ever wrote. There’s also a volume of personal letters, literary criticism from D. H. Lawrence and Virginia Woolf, and the biography Herman Melville: Man, Mariner, and Mystic by Raymond Weaver.

Complete Works of William Shakespeare
All of Shakespeare’s works, and then some. In addition to the bard’s plays, sonnets, and poems, there are quite a few of the “apocryphal” plays—works that some scholars claim were written by the English language’s greatest playwright. There are plenty of Shakespeare collections out there, but what really sold me on this one is that the plays are typeset in a very easy-to-read manner. This collection also includes a whole lot of biographical and critical content for anyone wishing to delve deeper into Shakespeare’s life and works.

Complete Works of Henry David Thoreau
Their treatment of Thoreau is quite thorough. (Sorry, I couldn’t resist.) Five books of his nature writing and over two dozen uncollected essays are contained herein, plus Familiar Letters and Thoreau’s Journals. Hundreds of poems are indexed chronologically and alphabetically. It even has his translations of Aeschylus and Pindar. A few essays seem to be missing, like “Prayers” and “Died . . . Miss Anna Jones.” There’s also plenty of lit-crit from Robert Louis Stevenson, Henry James, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Ralph Waldo Emerson, and more.

Complete Works of Leo Tolstoy
Beyond Anna Karenina, I have little familiarity with Tolstoy, but thanks to Delphi’s chronological presentation of his works, I have started with the Childhood, Boyhood, Youth trilogy and am working my way forward. I had no idea Tolstoy wrote so many short stories; there are dozens included here. Once again, a category named “Selected Non-Fiction” makes you wonder what’s missing, but the plethora of good stuff packed into this collection will soon distract you from any such misgivings.

Complete Works of Emile Zola
It took me years to track down the English translations of Zola’s 20-novel Rougon-Macquart cycle in paper editions. Now they can all be yours with the touch of a button, even the ultra-elusive His Excellency Eugène Rougon. All that came before and after the Rougon-Macquart epic is here as well, including the Three Cities and Four Gospels series, short stories, and his famous editorial “J’Accuse . . . !”. One work that appears to be missing from this collection is a book called Death. Valuable reference materials include the biography With Zola in England by perennial Zola translator Ernest Alfred Vizitelly, a Rougon-Macquart family tree, and indexes of the characters and locations in the Rougon-Macquart saga.

Works of Honoré de Balzac
I already own another Kindle file of Works of Honoré de Balzac (from MobileReference), which has served me well, so I don’t have much need for this edition. Although the word “Complete” is missing from the title, it does have the complete Comédie Humaine, as well as the Droll Stories, which is all most readers will require. There’s also some plays, some critical essays on Balzac, and no less than five biographies of the author. In addition, it includes a helpful Glossary of Characters in La Comédie HumaineBalzac’s writings are arranged according to his categories of the Comédie Humaine, but regretfully there is no alphabetical index to this file, which is inexcusable.

Complete Works of the Brontës
Not just the sisters, but the brother and dad, too! How’s that for “Complete”?

Delphi also has an extensive poetry series, a line of classics from ancient Greece and Rome, and a large German-language series. See their complete catalogue at their web site,, or find their books at Amazon.

1 comment:

  1. Hi Karl, Thanks for this publisher review.
    I was looking for "The Raid" by Leo Tolstoy but couldn't find it anywhere. After some googling about complete collections of Tolstoy, I stumbled across this article and bought the Delphi collection of Tolstoy.
    Just completed reading "The Raid".