The Waste LandAfter James Joyce and George Orwell, we now have another 20th-century classic in the public domain exhibiting added value in its print legacy. A rare UK first edition copy of “The Waste Land” by T.  S. Eliot, donated to Oxfam, is to be auctioned at Bonhams in London on June 25, where it is estimated to fetch £2,000-3,000 ($3,100-4,700).

This first edition is one of only 460 copies hand-printed by Leonard Woolf and Virginia Woolf at the Hogarth Press in September 1923.

Cover of the UK first edition of “The Waste Land” at auction, courtesy of Bonhams

Fortunately for modern readers, The Waste Land has been a public domain work in the United States since 1998. According to Rickard A. Parker, the poem was registered for U.S. copyright in 1922, with a protection period at the time of 28 years, subsequently extended until 1998. Had it been registered one year later, in 1923, it would still be under copyright until 2019.

Project Gutenberg produced its digital edition of “The Waste Land” in May 1998 (ebook no. 1321), followed by an audio edition in May 2007 (ebook no. 21602). In the United Kingdom, where the poem was begun, “The Waste Land” is still under copyright until 2035—70 years after Eliot’s death.

There are many other online and digital versions of the work available—which alas, is just as well. The Gutenberg edition is very imperfect, even in its basic HTML rendition, with incorrect breaks between stanzas and footnotes interpolated into the text where they break up the flow. (This is not just a matter of verse formatting, by the way: Any prose work on Gutenberg that had its text broken up by random footnotes would look almost as poorly digitized.)

In Gutenberg’s Kindle version of the poem, critical italics that crop up time and again throughout the poem’s text just do not appear at all. Project Gutenberg has a fairly poor record in retrospective quality control, especially for some of its earlier editions, and “The Waste Land” is one that cries out for a revision. The 2011 Bartleby edition at least has no such problems.

I’m not writing this as a roundabout apology for publishers who charge for public-domain works, but it strikes me that any house that produced a properly redacted and formatted e-book edition of “The Waste Land,”  so long as it doesn’t overcharge too invidiously, would be doing readers a favor.  Faber and Faber’s 2010 edition of “The Waste Land and Other Poems” retails on the Amazon Kindle Store for $5.25.

The Bonhams auction shows how much readers still value this work. If Gutenberg wants to live up to its reputation, and produce an edition worthy of respect, it ought to take another look at “The Waste Land.” Otherwise, the world’s number one source of public-domain literature is blocking the market with a sub-standard item that does the cause of copyright-free work, and e-book poetry, no good at all.