July 3 seems as good a day as any to take a closer look at Sutro Library’s copy of Common Sense, Thomas Paine’s political tract which argued in favor of independence for British North American colonies.[1]

The first copies to emerge from Robert Bell’s Philadelphia print shop early in 1776 did so anonymously, and with good reason: Paine’s seditious text was a direct challenge to the British monarchy and charged King George III with tyranny. The text was immensely popular and numerous reprints help spread it across the colonies as well as Europe, including England.

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Title page to Sutro Library’s copy of Common Sense

Sutro Library’s copy of Common Sense is from one of the four editions by London publisher J. Almon. There are significant differences between the texts of the U.S. and British editions. Almon stood to profit a great deal from publishing what was essentially an international political bestseller, but numerous alterations were needed to avoid charges of libeling the King and stay out of jail. Writing for the Common Sense Digital British Edition[2], Marie Pellissier notes that “in all, J. Almon made nearly twenty changes to the text, removing savage attacks on the King and his ministers, and making additions to soften some of Paine’s rhetoric.”[3] This is no ordinary sort of censorship. Sentences are interrupted with blank spaces, these visual silences marking removed passages. Not at all inconspicuous, the omissions add drama and intrigue, like extensive bleep censoring on a television show—you can’t hear it, but you know it’s there. Such audible or visual censure has all the appeal of tip-toeing around something dangerous, revolting, clandestine, and forbidden. Even more exciting about Sutro’s copy is that someone has manually replaced the missing text.[4]

 

When differences are observed across multiple copies of a single edition, those copies are said to exist in variant states. Errors corrected (like a misspelled word, if it was noticed), or a sentence or paragraph added or removed, in the middle of a print run result in two versions, or variants, of what were intended to be the same thing. It’s important to note that “variant” in a bibliographical sense often refers to differences found among copies in a single edition (multiple copies produced in the same time and place), and Sutro Library’s copy of Common Sense represents an entirely different edition than, say, Robert Bell’s (both were produced in their respective places and time). However, because its transmission from Philadelphia to London produced textual changes, I think of Almon’s Common Sense as an example of a “libel variant.” This distinguishes its variations from those introduced by authors, editors, compositors, pressmen, or the mechanics of printing, and refocuses on the legal, and therefore societal, nature of alterations to the text.

Almon may not have printed the particularly seditious bits, but he still informs his readers something is missing. The way Almon’s edition of Common Sense announces itself through absence is a wonderful illustration of how multiple forces converge on books: people, like authors, editors, and printers; technology, like standing type and printing presses, which helped spread the work; and legal structures, like libel laws that made it necessary for Almon to censor and modify the text to mitigate the risks he faced.

I find libel variant a useful term also because it creates associations between books that might otherwise be much more difficult to imagine. Libel variants are still being produced, as we see in Jarett Kobek’s 2016 novel I Hate the Internet.[5] Libel laws prevented Kobek’s British publisher from printing certain sections without also facing the threat of costly lawsuits. Rather than silencing the offending passages, they have been blacked out (redacted, bleeped) so that the reader is aware that something is being censored and a page-long note from the author explains why this was done.[6] Libel variants can be, and often are, more subtle, like Jonathan Taplin’s Move Fast and Break Things; its subtitle, “How Facebook, Google, and Amazon Cornered Culture and Undermined Democracy,” was changed to “…Cornered Culture and What It Means For All Of Us” for the British edition.

Though separated by 240 years, Common Sense and I Hate the Internet met the challenge of censorship, which in both cases stemmed from anti-libel laws, in a way that used redaction to call out to the reader in a playful manner. Interestingly, these variations usually do not make themselves known. The reader has to notice them by comparing multiple copies. It is tempting to assume that two editions of the same work published in countries that share a language will have identical content.[7] Libel variants are reminders of the many forces that physically and intellectually shape what and how we read.

Jose Guerrero is Sutro Library’s Cataloging & Metadata Librarian.

[1] The Sutro copy is bound with a reply by John Chalmer’s titled Plain Truth.

[2] This website, as its name suggests, gives users the opportunity to read the British edition of Common Sense as a transcription or from digitized surrogates.

[3] https://explorecommonsense.com/exhibits/show/essay1/essay1

[4] The manuscript restoration of these passages can be compared to unmarked copies on the Common Sense Digital British Edition website: https://explorecommonsense.com/collections/show/1

[5] The idea that libel laws produce textual variation is borrowed from Kobek himself, who noted in an interview that he observed this while reading a British edition of George Foreman’s autobiography.

[6] While I have not compared the two editions word by word, the comparisons I have made suggest that the U.K. and U.S. editions are, superficially at least, identical except for the redacted parts.

[7] An interesting recent example of different versions across US and UK editions, though unrelated to libel laws, is discussed in Martin Paul Eve’s “‘You Have to Keep Track of Your Changes’: The Version Variants and Publishing History of David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas.https://olh.openlibhums.org/article/10.16995/olh.82/ 

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