Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Selections on Natural Selection

Beloved Helene Hanff, of 84 Charing Cross Road fame, when confronted by a book of excerpts from the sermons of John Donne, pleaded with her beloved bookstore to find her a complete edition of same. She knew her chances were slim. Having detailed her struggles to cobble together the full text on her own, she closed her letter with the following:

"i am going to bed. i will have hideous nightmares involving huge monsters in academic robes carrying long bloody butcher knives labelled Excerpt, Selection, Passage and Abridged."

I am, as always, with Helene. And yet...

There's a new anthology of Charles Darwin's work, called Evolutionary Writings, from Oxford University Press. Now I hate excerpts, selections, etc., as much or more than most, but this is a handsome hardcover and includes The Autobiographies, which one never sees in a hardcover of any kind. And there does seem to be quite a lot in this one fat volume.

I may have to have it. Still, by way of recommendation, I'm neither more nor less likely to recommend this book than I am the book Edward O. Wilson edited and introduce, From So Simple a Beginning: The Four Great Books of Charles Darwin, from Norton. In the case of the latter, besides Wilson, the book also boasts complete texts, BUT all bound together in one handsome but cumbersome brick. (Not that I didn't have to buy the book when it came out, but I've honestly never tried to read it after I read Wilson's introduction -- just too clumsily made to rest on the chest at night or carry on the bus.)

At least the new Oxford is reasonably sized for bus travel and late night reading in bed. But ultimately, one might simply be better off with individual and unexpurgated paperbacks, much as I hate to admit it.

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