Friday, October 22, 2010

Sartre's Roads to Freedom Trilogy (now a quartet)

I collect a range of books concerning existentialism broadly defined, from Kierkegaard, the "father of existentialism," to Sartre and in between and beyond.  As a cultural phenomenon, existentialism feeds my natural dislike for dogmatism in any guise and my natural inclination to be a contrarian.  One of my favorite examples of the existential genre, in fiction,  is the Roads to Freedom trilogy (now a quartet) by Jean-Paul Sartre. 

I first read the Roads to Freedom sometime around 1983.  The novels, an extended investigation of the lives of an existential cadre of coming of age intellectuals, living in Paris during World War II, spoke to me on many levels.  Freedom is essential to a live life well-lived, life is messy, life doesn't come with an owner's manual or a warranty, life is an adventure, all seem to be what drew me to these novels.  I wasn't first introduced to existentialism via this series but after reading them I knew that they would someday be a foundation for my private library of great existentialist writings.  Since then, acquiring the first edition first printings of the Road to Freedom series was always on my general want list.  Today, while I own many classic books of existentialism and still many more page worn paperback editions, acquired during my college days,  I have accumulated a number of collectible firsts by Sartre (and Camus and others).

Sometime in 2009, I came upon an announcement for a new book, the previously unpublished fourth and final book in the Road to Freedom series.  I have the first three titles in the series and while I needed to learn more about this new title, I was certain I would like a first printing to add to my Sartre section.  From the product description I learned that this was an unfinished manuscript with two chapters published after Sartre's death by Gallimard in French along with an interview with Sartre and an essay by Simone de Beauvoir offering her recollections of Sartre's plan for this final book in the Roads to Freedom quartet.  I placed an order for the soon to be released Hardcover and Paperback edition, published by Continuum in late 2009. 

Immediately, I knew I would be annoyed by the publication plan based on the price of the hardcover but I placed the orders and awaited publication.  As I imagined, the publication of this fourth installment was a world class disappointment, a publication disappointment, not a content disappointment.

There are many reasons I acquire books but one reason is that I love to have the original book object to contemplate.  I waited around 20 years to pull the trigger and buy the First American Edition of the original trilogy, The Age of Reason, The Reprieve, and The Troubled Sleep, published by Alfred Knopf, Borzoi Books, 1947, 1947, 1951, translated by Eric Sutton (1st two) and Gerard Hopkins.  My editions are in Fine Condition with naturally yellowing pages and clean dust jackets with an illustration by Warren Chappelle.  The Knopf edition is a classic example of publishing aesthetics in the late 1940's and early 1950's.  The edition has a classic look and feel and whether shelved face out or spine out, the three books together are a proper trilogy and have an almost magnetic drawing power.  If you visit my library and see them, you just want to pick them up.  A fine set of books honoring one of my favorite authors.

After a few months wait, the new edition to Roads of Freedom arrived and my fears were realized.  Continuum, an independent contemporary academic publisher, released Last Chance: Roads of Freedom IV  simultaneously in hardcover and paperback edition.  I had hoped that the hardcover release would be a throwback to the look and feel of the Knopf edition (or at least the Hamish First British Edition) but what arrived was, to my horror, a simple "library bound" hardcover edition in a larger trim size and a paperback with expected illustrated cover.  I am outraged.  I understand the economics of current scholarly and academic publishing and I too, published many books in simultaneous release with the economic expectation that the remaining 200 libraries around the world that still acquire new books would understand that the $95 price for the hardcover simply covered the expense to them if they acquired a paperback and had it rebound for library use.  A simple and seemingly minor service to the ever shrinking library marketplace and a real financial support to a book that may be projected to sell 5000 copies over the first three years of publication.   This is a standard approach to publishing for the scholarly and academic markets.

What it said to me was much more and while I was happy to be able to read more, new to me, Sartre, I was depressed about the condition of the book in contemporary society.  Continuum confirmed, with their approach to this title, that they were worried there was a very small market for new Sartre in English, that the market would be scholarly, and that the market did not care about the aesthetic of this in relation to the original English language publications.  I wonder how hard it would have been to at least, if nothing else, match the trim size of the new work with the original Knopf or Hamish editions?  I wonder why they didn't try to match the look and feel with a similar cover design and illustration that would hearken back to the era when the manuscript was written and the first three books were published?  I wonder why a growing publishing house didn't try harder.  Now, I have my beloved Knopf Edition of three, plus one, stamped hardcover and one illustrated paperback in larger format hidden from view.  For now, Sartre's Roads to Freedom remains face out on my shelves as a trilogy, with the fourth book spine out, in the back!

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