The price of Classic books.

Ἀναξαγόρου οἴει κατηγορεῖν, ὦ φίλε Μέλητε; καὶ οὕτω καταφρονεῖς τῶνδε καὶ οἴει αὐτοὺς ἀπείρους γραμμάτων εἶναι ὥστε οὐκ εἰδέναι ὅτι τὰ Ἀναξαγόρου βιβλία τοῦ Κλαζομενίου γέμει τούτων τῶν λόγων; καὶ δὴ καὶ οἱ νέοι ταῦτα παρ᾽ ἐμοῦ μανθάνουσιν, ἃ ἔξεστιν ἐνίοτε εἰ πάνυ πολλοῦ δραχμῆς ἐκ τῆς ὀρχήστρας πριαμένοις Σωκράτους καταγελᾶν, ἐὰν προσποιῆται ἑαυτοῦ εἶναι, ἄλλως τε καὶ οὕτως ἄτοπα ὄντα; ἀλλ᾽,

Do you think you are accusing Anaxoragos, my dear Meletus? And do have such a low opinion of these men here and think them so ignorant of letters that they don’t know that the books of Anaxagoras are full of such arguments. Do the young really learn them from me when they can buy his book for a drachma at most from the orchestra and then laugh at me if I claim his arguments are my own especially if they are so outlandish?

Plat. Apol. 26d

This was Socrates speaking at his trial. I wonder if he realised how lucky he was to be able to buy a book for just a drachma. I was in Oxford today and visited Blackwell’s, the main Oxford bookshop, which has a classics section. To take an example, W.S.Barrett’s edition of Hippolytus in paperback was £60. As a text that would be aimed at undergraduates, it is well beyond the price that any student could afford to pay. Other less substantial books were priced at £70 or £90 and some even higher. Even universities must think twice before buying at these prices. I can only imagine that some books are a sort vanity publishing to further an academics career. A few colleges might buy a copy and possibly his mother and aunt but there is no expectation that more than a few people will buy it and not many more read it. There was hardly a throng of people in the Classics section, in fact just me, so these books are not flying off the shelves. There were some cheaper books, notably those of Mary Beard and Bettany Hughes both of whom are TV personalities and both write readable and entertaining books which sell for about £10. Even the Loebs now cost £17 and their prices are rising much faster than inflation.

Luckily I don’t need any more books. I have shelves full of classical texts that I have still to read. I prefer to read physical books rather than online but I do often go the the Perseus site and this is what I imagine most students who study classics do nowadays . If they had to buy the books they would never pay off their student loan! This results in even fewer books being bought. It also means that new critical editions that contain good insights and new knowledge from archaeology and examination of manuscripts will never pass before student’s eyes because they will be looking at the out-of-copyright versions online.

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2 Responses to The price of Classic books.

  1. palaiophron says:

    I have long wondered at the fact that academic publishing often seems to violate the basic law of supply and demand; books with almost infinitesimal demand happen to be exponentially more expensive than books which are highly coveted. I have, luckily, managed to acquire several rather pricey books at used bookshops which clearly had no idea what they were selling; or perhaps, being well-acquainted with the nature of the work and the projected demand for it, decided that the most prudent course would be to offer a steep discount. As a case in point, I purchased a perfectly clean, unmarked copy of the Barret Hippolytus (hardcover) for three American dollars. Unfortunately, the internet marketplace has made this sort of find increasingly rare.

    I can understand the popularity of Loebs above OCTs. While the latter are undoubtedly much finer in several respects, the extra scholarly cache attached to them can hardly justify the threefold price increase over a Loeb edition, especially when the texts are generally the same. Moreover, the Loebs sometimes have useful historical and literary footnotes, and even the most ardent believer in editions published in usum editorum would have to concede that the Loebs offer a far more extensive selection of authors and works. Certainly, Teubner has an incredibly expansive catalogue, but this is matched only by the rather expansive price tag.

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    • platosparks says:

      Most of my books are second hand although I have bought some new Loebs. Out of the way second hand book shops sometimes have surprising bargains but three dollars for the Hippolytus was exceptional. You probably saved yourself close to a hundred dollars.

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