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The Oxford Mark Twain

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Collected editions can confer a deadly respectability on a writer, solemnly gathering dust on the bookshelf the way statues in the park collect pigeon mementos. The regimented row of uniformed books seems to discourage browsing, demanding you begin with the one on the far left and work your way to Volume XLVII — or else confess that you bought the set only because it fits the living-room color scheme.

So the right way to approach The Oxford Mark Twain is in the spirit in which the books were written — with irreverence, humor, occasional profanity, and a tendency to digress. Browse. Read them lying in bed, which is where Mark Twain liked to write. Get hooked by the unfamiliar piece you run across while hunting down a familiar one — the great advantage of a collected edition is that it’s full of unexplored territory where you can make discoveries (or narrow escapes, in some cases). Savor the original illustrations. Each of these 29 volumes contains a reproduction of an original first edition published during Twain’s lifetime. The authentic imitations are sandwiched between lively introductions by mostly famous writers, including Toni Morrison, Kurt Vonnegut, and Gore Vidal, and afterwords by less famous ones.

The essential point to remember is that Twain is disreputable. That’s the secret of his success and endurance. In his own day, he was the most popular writer in America, and the only popular American writer in Europe, and by now he is the literary equivalent of Lincoln. Yet he’s always made the more solemn and sanctimonious critics wince. They suspected him of being low and vulgar then, and suspect him of being obliquely racist or misogynist now. What really bothers them, however, is that he makes his readers laugh out loud, frequently at the critics themselves. And what draws you into these books and keeps you there is Twain’s very American but very individual voice: deadpan, wry, sly, and animated by a plainspoken honesty that’s several miles down the river from respectability.