I personally believe strongly in “read and let read,” i.e., let people enjoy the books they enjoy without judgment if it doesn’t affect you and no one is being harmed; I don’t believe in shaming people if they need or prefer to consume their media in a different format than you, or that any books are inherently “better” or more valid than others. But since reading is already a very subjective experience when two people are reading the same exact book, how much more might their impressions differ when they aren’t reading the same words?
Types of Alternate Editions
Before we get into it, I want to clarify that this post is not about different formats (audio, digital, print, etc.) or movie/TV adaptations or cover redesigns. Instead, I want to look at reprints that involve deliberate changes to the book’s contents, often with a different audience in mind — which can be done in a number of ways.
Whether you’re picking up Briticisms from Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, challenging your high-school French skills with Le Petit Prince, or honoring the historical and cultural significance of 西遊記, there’s no shortage of reasons to tackle the original-language version of a book if you can. That said, translations are terrific for those who may not understand the author’s native language (or, more accurately, the language they chose to write the book in) … or who want to practice reading in another language by trying a translation of a familiar book.
I’m actually not 100% sure that this category belongs with the others, but it definitely changes the reading experience so I decided to include it anyway. My first experience with annotated works was Shakespeare — likely Romeo & Juliet, since that was required reading for my freshman year of high school — and I will admit that I would not have understood much, even at the basic plot level, without the “translations” of certain phrases to modern English as well as some historical/cultural notes.
Of course, annotations/footnotes can also be used for humorous asides and general context in modern works. Crazy Rich Asians is a good example of this usage (aside from the fact that the footnotes are part of the original, as far as I know) since it focuses on Singaporean socialite culture and features various Asian-language idioms that Western readers are unlikely to understand.
Despite the name, so-called “Young Readers’ Editions” can really be for any age. Often they’re marketed towards children or pre-/young teens, but I’ve known teenage and even adult readers who read them as a kind of “primer” in preparation to try the original; they can also be useful for people learning the language and/or the culture. There are several approaches to modifying books (usually classics) for this purpose, from retelling the whole story in simplified language to excerpting the most important plot points, and therefore these can be very similar to or completely different from the original edition of the book.
Abridged & Extended / “Author’s Cut”
Again, these tend to exist mainly for classics and other popular books, where there is already interest in the original. In my experience, they usually add or remove certain scenes from the middle of the story rather than, say, rewriting the ending; this can affect the reader’s understanding of the characters and plot, as well as create controversy between fans over the significance of the parts in question, but ultimately it’s still the same book with some slight changes.
So Why (Not) Read Alternate Editions?
Overall, original editions contain the minutiae of the author’s creation, including wording (figurative language and other phrasings) and various details of plot/setting/etc., whereas alternate editions are more accessible to a wider audience and may also get readers interested in eventually picking up the original. Because there is so much variety in the way alternate editions are created, it can be difficult to generalize about their effects on the reading experience — but at the end of the day, they get more people to read, and isn’t that the end goal?
Have you ever read an alternate edition of a book? If you’ve also read the original, how did the two compare? Do you think the accessibility and wider appeal of an alternate edition outweighs the possibility of losing things “in translation” for a different audience?