I've been on a remasters binge lately. First the Beatles and now I've been retracing the Peter Gabriel back catalogue (long overdue since those remasters are already seven years old—but hell if he takes ten years to make a record, then I get ten years to buy it, deal?). It strikes me that a big factor (cynics may argue the only factor) in a remastered catalogue is the packaging. The sound is cleaner and crisper, but—even to a would-be audiophile like me—doesn't differ all that dramatically from the old copy-and-dump CD resissues. It's just a bit...cleaner.
Some remasters throw in additional tracks, though I'm dead against such butchering. I still can't believe they destroyed the end of Plastic Ono Band. The perfect final song (My Mummy's Dead) followed up with a poorly recorded sax-sleazy single (Power To The People). I'm sorry, but it's a fucking insult. I'll cling to the old one, thanks.
But, aside from any ill-advised 'value-adding', a remaster's packaging is a different story: lavish, lovingly crafted, paying due homage to the original, but bringing into effect a brand new and beautiful object. Some go all out to recreate the old vinyl packaging to the letter, others remix the old design elements into something new and contemporary.
It's a bit of a sham, I know, but it works. We get excited and buy—yet again—all those old records. We listen to them intently and rediscover the music that had become a bit old hat.
So this wallow in remaster land has got me thinking. What if we remastered books?
In some ways we already do. Sometimes a new edition will include a newly written introduction, though these are rarely worth more than a casual glance. I have a lovely collection of Italo Calvino books from the late nineties. Vintage issued redesigned covers to make them consistent. This is about as close as publishing gets to the remaster and it happens a fair bit: when Random House bought up Venero Armanno's back catalogue a few years back, they did a similar trick.
Slavish redesign of old covers hasn't taken off in books the way it has for records, possibly because there's less emphasis on covers in the industry as a whole. Covers are usually done in house without significant author input and are not standardised worldwide. It does seem strange since a book cover is just as important as a record cover for attracting interest and generating sales.
These redesigned catalogues whack a new cover and leave it there, but the texts themselves are still printed off the same old templates. A truly remastered book should start there. What font? What paper? Do we slavishly copy the first edition from the original plates or do we create a wholly new edition from a digital master?
I'd love one day to see a forum post somewhere about an author's back catalogue remastered; something that gets those book nerds drooling over their keyboards:
'Didn't you hear? It's not just a reprint. They've taken the original text and created a new digital master in Baskerville eleven point and printed it on this creamy 100GSM paper!'