Collecting the Modern Library—A Gentle Introduction

Copyright 2004-2006 by Scot Kamins

 
In recent years more and more people have been collecting Modern Library books. And it's no wonder -- all but the most prized copies are still affordable, they look great on the shelf, there are a myriad of ways to collect them, and you get to build a wonderful library of books you can actually read in the process!

 

Basics

The Modern Library is an ongoing series of mostly reprints published more-or-less continuously from 1917 to the present. Over 750 titles have been published in the series with more than 1,000 collectible separate books because of variations in editors, forwards, and the like. If you count variations in bindings and dust jackets, the number of collectable pieces rises towards infinity. I collect all the issues published 19171970, sewn-bound volumes with numbers on the dust jacket spines, stained (mostly) block tops, gilt title lettering and easily-recognizable running torchbearer logos.

 

A Little History

The series was created by publishers Albert Boni and Horace Liveright as the first major venture of their fledgling publishing house Boni and Liveright, Inc. in 1917. At first an imitation of the highly successful British Everyman series but including more current works as well, the idea was to provide well-made reprints of the classics (and some not-so classics) for the common person at very low prices. Original books in their series cost 60 cents while other publishers were charging $1.00 or more for the same titles.

After World War II, when paperbacks became popular, "Hardback books at paperback prices" became the motto for the series. The quality of the books remained consistently high and the price consistently low through 1970 when the series was discontinued. New titles were added to the series again in around 1980, but at higher prices and in perfect-bound rather than sewn editions. This article is about the sewn volumes.

 
Modern Library trivia
Here's something you can wow your friends with at the next meeting of your neighborhood literary salon: Random House was originally a subsidiary of Modern Library. Bennett Cerf originally worked for Boni-Liveright as a vice-president (actually a travelling salesman for the New York area); in 1925 he and his partner Donald Klopfer bought the Modern Library line from Horace Liveright and founded the Modern Library Company. In the late 20's Cerf and Klopfer decided to publish an occasional work beyond the charter of the Modern Library line, and formed the Random House imprint (Get it? Publish random works -- hence the name). Random House became so successful that in 1936 it became the controlling imprint. True story.

 

Collecting Areas

One of the reasons the Modern Library is so much fun to collect is the variety of foci you can have -- a direct result of the series' longevity and the willingness of its management to experiment with the format. Here are a few suggested areas -- many more are possible.
 
Every title with or without a dust jacket

Collecting one of each title in the Modern Library even without dust jackets and without consideration to new editions, fresh translations, or added or changed introductions would be a fine challenge. This would be the least expensive way to go, and by the time you achieved your goal (if you ever did) you'd have a tremendous library of (mostly) western world literature.

A Plethora of Collecting Options

By the numbers
Except for a couple of highly prized exceptions, Modern Library titles issued from 1919 through 1970 all came with numbers on the dust jacket spines, a unique number for each title currently available. In its largest catalog Modern Library had 396 uniquely numbered titles in the standard edition plus 102 Giant titles. (It's arguable whether they really had every title stocked in its warehouses, but you could find every title if you looked hard enough.) You'd end up with 498 books, each with a different number on its spine.


Collecting By the Numbers

By the year
From time to time a book was dropped from the series and the number reassigned to a new book, or numbers were shuffled around for one reason or another. For example, the number 16 was assigned to four different titles over the years: Moore's Confessions of a Young Man (1917), Hart's War in Outline (1939), Hersey's Bell For Adano (1946) and James' The Bostonians (1966). So you can restrict your "by the numbers" collecting to the titles available in a given year. In you chose 1968, your number 16 would have to be the Henry James title. If you chose 1937, you'd have to have the scarcer Hart title—but then again, you'd have fewer titles to collect since only 260 titles existed that year, as opposed to about 450 titles (including giants) in 1968.
 
Just giants
Modern Library created the giant editions so it could publish titles with too many pages to fit in the standard binding. Giants typically have over 1,000 pages and stand 8 1/4" tall by 5 1/2" wide with colored tops (until 1963) and cloth coverings. Starting with Tolstoy's War and Peace in 1931, there are about 135 collectable numbered issues.

Five Modern Library Giants in Different Jacket Styles

Just Buckrams
Buckram editions were created in the late 1920's (briefly) and then more successfully throughout the 1960's for libraries and other situations where large numbers of people were expected to handle them. They are much more sturdy than the standard Modern Library books, and were the only Modern Libraries issued without either a dust jacket, acetate covering, or cardboard case. The buckrams of the 60's have a pebbly finish with an impressed label at the base of the spine saying "BUCKRAM REINFORCED" in gold ink followed by the title number. There are 376 known numbered buckram titles in the regular series and 71 in the giants, and look great on the shelf. My current collecting interest is in assembling a complete set of these puppies without library markings—a tough task!

1960's Buckram Editions

By a binding

In this collecting variation, you'd try to assemble all the titles that came in a particular binding type. The Modern Library used 15 distinct bindings between 1917 and 1970 for its standard issue books (not to mention two for standard buckram issues, one for the illustrated series—two if you include an extra type for those that came in slipcases, seven for the giant issues plus one for the very scarce giant buckrams, and a couple more for special gift editions for a total of nearly 30 binding types).

Several were used for just a few months, a couple for about a year, one was used for about eight years (standard type 7) while another was used for nearly 24 years (standard type 8).

There's no catalog that lists which titles were printed in the shorter-lived bindings, making collecting in those areas especially challenging; you won't know if you're done!

 
By dust jacket type

Modern Libraries came in three major dust jacket types: text-only, pictorial, and typographical with design elements. The longer-lived titles had all three types, and some had additional variations. Dostoyevsky's The Brothers Karamazov had at least ten (one text-only, six pictorial, and three illustrated).

Combining dust jacket types with binding types, you could limit your collecting to just the pictorial jackets in the type 7 standard bindings—a particularly alluring challenge because the pictorials of that period (1931 to 1939) were especially beautiful.

Nine Modern Library Pictorials

Only first printings with matching dust jackets

This is the toughest area to collect and not for the feint of heart. Enough information exists in the few available reference sources to identify almost all Modern Library first editions along with the characteristics of their appropriately matching dust jackets, but these copies are generally more expensive and less common (and therefore more difficult to come by) than non-first printings.

Even if you have lots of money to spend on first printings, whether you'll ever successfully complete your collection is problematic. This is because no examples of firsts of some of the titles in dust jacket are known to exist. Indeed, finding decent quality dust jackets for any printings before 1925 is extremely difficult, first edition or not. The dust jackets of that era were made of the most ephemeral of papers, and almost all of them have crumbled to dust. (There's a philosophical Truth in there somewhere.)

 

How much will it cost you?

You can begin collecting Modern Library titles at less than $8.00 for copies without dust jackets.

Typical prices for non-first common standard edition titles with dust jackets in VG/VG condition (the lowest generally acceptable collecting condition) depend on the period you collect: Expect to pay $15 and up for 1939-1968 stiff cover printings, $18 and up for 1969-1970 printings in the short-lived 7 1/2" format, $30 and up for 1928-1938 copies in flexible bindings, $60 and up for 1925-1928 flexi's, but $100 or more for the earliest period in Boni-Liveright bindings.(Someone recently paid over $300 for a non-first Boni-Liveright copy of #1 Wilde's Picture of Dorian Gray and considered himself lucky.)

Giant editions tend to cost less than comparable standard editions because fewer people collect them.

Expect to pay a substantial premium -- as much as 100% -- for first editions.

Buckram editions, which are never genuine firsts and are never issued with dust jackets, are worth $18 or more a pop in Near Fine condition.

Modern Library Illustrated editions in acetate dust jackets or slipcases command anywhere from $15 for common titles (usually more for acetates than slipcases) to $150 for a Dali-illustrated Don Quixote to at least $400 for Alice in Wonderland.

Don Quixote Spine and Front

 

How I got started

One day in late November of 1993 I walked into a bookshop on San Francisco's Castro Street looking for a copy of William James' Varieties of Religious Experience. The proprietor, a scholarly looking middle-aged man, told me in a British accent that he had a copy in the Modern Library edition.

"Modern Library? What's that?" I asked skeptically, expecting him to steer me to some absurdly expensive leather-bound tome, when a Penguin paperback would do me nicely. I had just rejected a new copy I found in the Crown Books chain a few doors down that would have set me back $13.95—for a bloody PAPERBACK, for Gawd's sake, plus San Francisco's ruinous 8.5% sales tax. I'd be damned if I'd pay even more in a USED bookstore. (Up to this time I had rejected the concept of buying used books, not wanting who-knows-whose eyetracks cootieing up my books. But I just wanted the James for a quick-and-dirty research project, and $13.95 for a PAPERBACK, well, that just was over the top!)

He pointed to a wall opposite his checkout desk. "About the middle of the wall," he qualified," next to his brother," indicating the neighboring six titles by Henry James. He went back to his paperwork.

The wall was his Modern Library section. It held several hundred copies of books 6 1/2 to 8" tall, most with some variation of a running torchbearer on their spines. There was something familiar about these things, something nostalgic and friendly and strangely attractive.

I took down the James. About seven inches tall and five wide, it fit comfortably in my hands. "This is a nice book," I thought as I leafed through it, noticing the readable type and -- well -- the substantial nature of the thing. It felt like it could last a while -- not something I usually notice or care about.

The price printed on the front flap was $1.65, but written in light pencil on the half-title page was $7.95. "Hrumph," I muttered. "Quite a markup, and it's used at that. Damned booksellers. Worse than coin dealers. It's cheaper than that ripoff paperback, though."

I started to bring the James to the counter when it struck me. These books that were so familiar -- I remembered them from school! I turned back to look at the shelves and was struck by the variety. Novels, short stories, poetry, drama, biography, philosophy, history, politics, essays, art, music, sociology, psychology, religion, and more--nearly the entire gamut of human knowledge.

I turned the James over and read the legend "The Best of the World's Best Books". These were the books I used to buy in prep school and college because they were so cheap. Hard back books at paperback prices.

Henry Toledano

I handed the book to the proprietor. "These are becoming quite collectable, you know." No, I didn't know, I said, but I could see how collecting them would make a nice hobby. "I think so," he said, smiling for the first time. "I've written a little book about them," and pointed down to the small pile of privately printed paperbacks in front of the cash register. "The Modern Library Price Guide By Henry Toledano" graced the cover.

I bought the James but passed on the Guide. A week later I bought the guide and spent an additional $75 in Henry Toledano's store on nine more Modern Library books. I was hooked for sure.

 

Join the party!

With most ML books selling for less than $20/copy in VG/VG condition, collecting the Modern Library series makes a satisfying and inexpensive hobby, and provides a way to build a wonderful library as well—yes, you can actually read what you collect!

For TONS more information about collecting the Modern Library series, including more detailed information on the topics covered in this article, visit my Web site at http://www.ModernLib.com. I'm more than glad to answer your Modern Library questions. (It makes me feel important.) If I don't know the answer, I probably know someone who does.

 

About Scot Kamins

Scot Kamins has been an avid Modern Library collector since 1993. He is the Webmaster of Collecting the Modern Library at www.ModernLib.com, and is the founder of the popular rec.collecting.books newsgroup.

In real life Scot is a contract technical writer living and working in plush but not overly ostentatious surroundings in Portland, Oregon.

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