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The Modern Library: How a Publisher Helped Make Books More Accessible

"Which of these titles would you like to own?"

By Theia Griffin • January 18, 2021

ThriftBooks Collectibles are special items that are rare, vintage, signed, or otherwise remarkable. While usually our Collectibles staff would spotlight their favorite items in stock, this week the Collectibles team wants to highlight a wonderful book publisher imprint called Modern Library.

The century-old iconic Modern Library series was conceived by Albert Boni, a Greenwich Village bookseller, and first published in 1917 by Boni and Liveright with the intent of providing American readers modernist, inexpensive reprints of European and American titles. On August 1, 1925, the Modern Library transferred ownership to Bennett Cerf (a young Vice-President at Boni and Liveright) and Donald Klopfer. Together they grew the imprint and two years later, due to Modern's wild success, Cerf and Klopfer introduced the Random House imprint, which later became the parent of the Modern Library.

Modern Library billed itself as "The Modern Library of the World's Best Books," and readers relied on it to supply an ongoing series of titles for a price that anyone could afford. The originals were $.60 and in 1920 rose to $.95 where it held firm until World War II, finally capping at $2.95 in the 1970s. The reverse side of dust jackets called to action with questions, "Which of these titles would you like to own?" and "Which of these outstanding titles do you want to read?" placed alongside a growing list of catalogue titles eventually reaching 498 at its apogee. Modern Giants, introduced in 1931, accommodated lengthier works that did not fit the original format. The Complete Works of Lewis Carroll, The Complete Works of Rabelais, and Edward Gibbon's The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire serve as examples.

Modern Library editions were distributed to major department-store book departments, such as Macy's, bookstores, and college stores. As the series was stocked by most booksellers in its entirety, the buying public was accustomed to their appearance and looked forward to new titles to add to their collections. Though formats changed over time, Modern Library editions never lost their familiarity and visual appeal. Dust jackets were beautifully conceived and designed, such as E. McKnight Kauffer's illustrations for Dashiell Hammett's The Maltese Falcon and William Faulkner's Sanctuary. The famous torchbearer device gracing the dust jackets, spines, covers, and endpapers was designed by Lucien Bernhard and redesigned by Rockwell Kent, appropriately signifying enlightenment, has followed the imprint since its inception.

Though Bennett Cerf didn't perceive Modern necessarily as "mass-market" and its distribution somewhat limited, its enormous success was due to the fact the series offered intellectual substance and, in doing so, far outdistanced any competition. Modern Library's only true competition appeared later in the twentieth century when "quality" mass-market paperbacks hit bookstands in the 1950s. (Regardless, the book buying public still coveted Modern's hardcovers.) The Great Depression and World War II heightened demand for Modern Library editions providing readers economy and obvious diversion.

Editorial decisions at Modern Library helped create and underscore modern intellectual canon and the imprint was acclaimed for essentially democratizing literature. Authors' works, re-introduced and newly introduced, helped bring many to the forefront: Melville, Dostoevsky, and Dos Passos, to name only a few. William Faulkner's works were generally only available in Modern Library editions by the time he won the Nobel Prize in 1950. Titles were added and subtracted according to their popularity or the availability of publishing rights. Sometimes authors made their own voice heard as was the case with Death Comes for the Archbishop by Willa Cather; though a bestselling title for Modern, it was dropped after its five-year contract because Cather decided she did not want her books in reprint editions. And as reprint publisher, Modern Library performed the great service of ensuring certain works did not go out of print and resurrecting those that had. In addition to reprints, Modern Library's list included works by O'Neill, Hemingway, Eliot, Jeffers, and Pound, drawing undoubtedly from Random House's stable of authors.

Because Modern Library signaled "the world's best books" consumers expected publications that weren't necessarily avant-garde or new pieces by unknown authors. Titles such as Pearl S. Buck's The Good Earth, Rebecca by Daphne Du Maurier, and W. Somerset Maugham's Of Human Bondage were found among the top 100 bestselling list. In line with original intent, Modern Library also published "the sophisticated and the subversive" with titles such as Sherwood Anderson's Winesburg, Ohio, and the James Joyce epic Ulysses (including the complete court decision which allowed for its American publication.) An interesting aside, Bennett Cerf and attorney Morris Ernst effectively brought the Ulysses case to fruition, timing the case to appear before Judge John M. Woolsey (noted for his liberal literary decisions), and ensuring evidence at trial included pieces written by Edmund Wilson, Ezra Pound, and other greats, claiming Ulysses was a "landmark in literature." (For anyone interested in reading more about the publishing adventure, is it best recalled by Bennett Cerf himself, in his autobiography At Random: The Reminiscences of Bennett Cerf.)

As many celebrated writers and scholars are quick to attest that they "grew up with the Modern Library," we essentially all have. Collectors of Modern Library know endless possibilities. Our aim is to introduce and ideally create ongoing interest in these beautiful books. Their individual style never fails to delight and they invite all to understand the quiet satisfaction that frequently turns bookworms into bibliomaniacs.

The ThriftBooks Collectibles team lists volumes published primarily in the early-to-mid twentieth century through the 1970s. The titles highlighted in this blog represent just a few we presently have in stock. More may be found through our Collectibles page and new titles are introduced and added frequently, so it's always worth checking our site for something special or other titles you may be looking for as we, of course, remain on constant lookout.

Throughout the rest of the year, the Collectibles team will highlight genres, publishers, and authors in an effort to help our clients recognize our well-established and organized content in a more in-depth manner. We hope you enjoy what this new year holds for all. Thank you.

About the Author: Theia Griffin works in the Collectibles department of ThriftBooks and considers herself quite privileged as charged in locating and selling the ThriftBooks "gold." Having grown up in the Southern Sierra's, she now enjoys exploring the Northern Sierra's with her trusted horse Blue. Her connection with books is lifelong, and she devotes many waking hours contemplating their future.

Read more by Theia Griffin

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