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On Our Old Books

Jan 31, 1995 09:25 AM
by Eldon Tucker

Jerry Hejka-Ekins:

In reading your postings last week, I can see that we
basically agree regarding the preparation of old
theosophical books for republication. The only point of
difference might be where we handle obsolete words. I'd
replace them, judiciously; other people might include the
definition in square brackets or a footnote.

In my comments to Liesel where I mention that I'd leave
alone books with a few exceptions, my "few exceptions"
refers to the "left alone," e.g. to slight corrections as
I've discussed elsewhere. My "few exceptions" was not
intended to imply that we leave most books alone, and revise
but a selected few titles.

I'm sorry if I've upset you with my last comments about what
you've said regarding editing books. I realize that you're
not for intentionally making or keeping books hard to read
simply because you've studied them the hard way, an attitude
which you aptly characterize as "puritanical crap." You may
have been too quick to defend yourself, though, when feeling
unjustly criticized, rather than asking me: What do you mean
by this?

When you make a strong statement that, as a general rule,
the works of dead authors should be left untouched, you're
making an evaluation of right or wrong, an ethical judgment.
The question is the ethical treatment of works of authors,
now dead and unable to review and approve any proposed
changes to their works.

There are a number of changes that could be make to a book,
when reprinting it. Each change needs to be evaluated on a
case-by-case basis, and a separate value judgment made, with
some supporting justification. With ethics, we don't just
have an absolute black-and-white rule which says "always
this way," but rather have a careful weighing of the pros
and cons of an individual situation, with the balance
tipping towards the greater common good.

What are some example changes that might be made to books,
when reprinted? First, a facsimile edition needs to be
preserved, regardless of other editions, for historical and
scholarly research. The books could be computerized and
retypeset. The quotes could be typographical set apart from
the body text, and perhaps even set apart with a different
color on a computerized book. Spellings could be corrected
to American English (changing "colour" to "color" may affect
the feeling of a poem, but not a block of prose). Sanskrit
and other foreign terms could be given standardized
spellings, accents, and hyphens. Original page markers could
be inserted (e.g. a bold "[20]" where the end of the
original page 20). Obsolete terms could be corrected or
definitions annotated. And corrective annotations could be
brought in from later works to explain or correct the
materials (e.g. in "Esoteric Buddhism" we could add as
annotations HPB's corrections in subsequent years).

What are some example changes that should not be made to
books, when reprinted? Taking out materials that are
considered offensive, illogical, or stupid by today's
standards, to sanitize an author's works (like taking racist
comments out of CWL's or Jinarajadasa's works). Altering the
contents of books to change the meaning of what was said, to
interject our opinions in place of the author's viewpoints.
And unnecessary rewriting of the text itself, to correct the
English and manner of expression to more suit our personal

How do we distinguish what are good from what are bad
changes to books? Good changes make the literature more
readable, more lucid; they remove unnecessary roadblocks to
a reader's comprehension of the literary work. Bad changes
repress or alter the contents of a book, to make it say
something different, because of some political agenda or
desire to sanitize objectionable contents.

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