An observation of quality in the Great Books of the Western World

Posted On Jun 03, 2009 at 5:47 pm

I have been contemplating buying a set of the Great Books of the Western World for some time and now that I am a little more serious about dropping some cash on a set, I thought it would be a good idea to get a feel for the quality first.

The first printing of these books was in 1952. In 1990 they revised the set by removing a few works and adding 6 additional volumes - along with redesigning the exterior of the books making them, in my opinion, much more stylish. One would assume that with the advancement of printing techniques and more abundance of material, the quality would get better after each printing...

I have three mint volumes from a 1952 set - which I bought for a cool $0.50 each at a book sale - and I borrowed a 1990 volume from the library to do some comparing. I was amazed at the difference in paper quality. I guess somewhere between 1952 and 1990, Britannica decided that since most people don't actually read these books, they might as well use thinner, lower quality paper to pump them out for even more profits.

Here is a picture of the 1952 printing of Don Quixote by Cervantes.

Don Quixote by Cervantes

And here is a picture of the 1990 printing of Animal Farm by Orwell.

Animal Farm by George Orwell

As you can see, in the 1990 printing, the paper is so thin that you can see words from the following three pages. The picture above does not do justice to just how annoying this is while trying to read. Also as a result of the thinner page, the words are slightly thicker from the ink bleeding out slightly during printing; this adds additional eye strain (though this is not very discernible in the images above). In the 1952 printing you can faintly see the words of the next page but they are not nearly as visible or distracting as in the 1990 set.

Well it looks like I will be hunting for an older set. The upside? They are a bit cheaper than the newer, revised addition ($150-250 for excellent condition set on ebay). It will be a shame to not have those additional 6 volumes, though.

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