If you are new to the Nights you might want to start with these books and articles which I also have at the end of my article "What is the Arabian Nights."
For English readers interested in the Nights here is a good list of sources and versions you can take a look at with my own take on them, you can also find in them verification for the facts I’ve presented and further bibliographies should you be interested in pursuing the mad trail of the Nights:
1. Reynolds, Dwight F. "A Thousand and One Nights: a history of the text and its reception." Arabic Literature in the Post-Classical Period. Eds. Roger Allen and D. S. Richards. Cambridge University Press, 2006.
- This is by far the best and most concise history of the 1001 Nights I’ve ever read. You need to get a copy of this and read it if you are interested in the Nights and their history at all. In a future class I’d like to teach on the Nights this would be the first thing I’d have students read. This book might be hard to get (ie expensive) if you are not affiliated with a university library and can check it out but it might be worth a local university library membership if you are interested. Most university libraries will let you enter and photocopy without affiliation, however.
1.5 Nurse, Paul. Eastern Dreams: How the Arabian Nights Came to the World. Penguin. 2010.
A complete and straightforward introduction to the textual history of the Nights, one of the best textbooks on the subject and part of the Nights canon, to be sure, for years to come. This book is especially important as it gets into the details of Galland's life and his publication of the Nights, the first major publication of the story collection since the medieval ages.
2. Ross, Jack. “A new translation of the Arabian Nights.” http://mairangibay.blogspot.com/2008/12/new-translation-of-arabian-nights.html
This is a free online article and great introduction to the various English language versions of the 1001 Nights and their histories and differences. A must read for anyone interested in seeing what version they should start reading.
3. The Arabian Nights Reader. Book edited by Ulrich Marzolph, 2006. This reader has several important scholarly articles on the history of the Nights including Nabia Abbott’s study of the papers she found in 1948 and a short essay on the history of the titles. Other articles are hit and miss but the book is important for the historical articles.
4. Read the introductions to the online versions I have linked here or any introduction to the Nights and you’ll get a feel for the variations of the Nights and what each author thinks of their history.
5. If you are looking for a version of the Nights to buy and are discouraged by seeing Richard Burton’s 16 volume edition with footnotes and crazy language, never fear, there are several decent and smaller versions that can give you at least a taste of the Nights.
Both of these are fairly inexpensive on Amazon and will certainly give you plenty to work with:
NJ Dawood’s Tales from the Arabian Nights. Penguin. Despite having many problems with the author’s introduction this version is quite readable and in my opinion better written than the Haddawy translation. Although again, it is very problematic on its own but so is every version. This is a very small selection of the Nights but its prose is also quite readable and it contains most of the popularly known stories.
Robert Mack, editor: Arabian Nights’ Entertainments. Oxford World's Classics. This is the “complete” English translation of Galland’s French version (as Galland's version looked in 1705 before later additions), all in one volume, quite a big paperback but not too huge to hold. This version’s language holds up quite well over the years and is surprisingly accessible even to the contemporary reader and includes the crowd favorites “Ali Baba,” Sindbad,” and “Aladdin” as they were first read in English in 1705/1706.
Robert Mack's introduction in this volume is also a great succinct (and correct) historical account of the Nights and its timeline is written in a straight-forward and readable manner.
6. Jorge Luis Borges, “The Translators of the Arabian Nights.” This is a somewhat abstract article (in Borgesian fashion) on the different versions of the Nights and makes for an interesting and poetic theoretical approach to the Nights.
7. Mia Gerhardt. The Art of Story Telling. This is a difficult academic book to find but it does a good job of introducing the history of the Nights and also has some interesting literary takes on the Nights stories in general. A sort of must-have in the canon.
8. Robert Irwin. The Arabian Nights: A Companion. This book is interesting and is somewhat of a canonical text vis-à-vis the Nights. Though it feels a bit unfocused at times (but the breadth of the Nights is sort of suggestively covered here) the book attempts to cover just about everything regarding the Nights you can think of (history, reception, setting, influences, etc.). The most interesting part of this book to me is the historical information about medieval Cairo and its crime stories and their relationship to some of the stories in the Nights.
There are about three tons of literature and scholarship on the Nights, check out my “free articles” link on this blog and you will find some online bibliographies that are a good starting point for investigating the Nights phenomenon academically.