Sunday, January 25, 2009
The Modern Library!
Can we pause and give a cheer or two for the Modern Library? My continuing ad hoc look at noteworthy book series certainly has to include a loving nod to Modern Library with its distinctive colophon of the running torch-bearer - this series has been around since 1917 (born, according to legend, as a kind of publishing answer to Britain's Everyman line, which featured woefully few American authors), and although the physical dimensions and look of its editions has varied over the decades, the mission has remained the same: publishing great books in attractive editions for reasonable prices.
For most general readers - the ones who've been paying even occasional, desultory interest to such things, that is - the history of those various Modern Library editions falls into four vague eras, each tied to a signature incarnation. The first era was small: the books were produced as little hand-sized hardcovers, in specific competition with Everyman, whose handy hardcovers had revolutionized the very nature of publishing (not to mention putting great lists of classic books within the reach of a huge potential reading public).
The second era was blue: the so-called 'giants' that Modern Library started bringing out shortly after its launch - these were physically bigger books and fatter as well: War and Peace, Moby-Dick, a whopping great volume with the poetry of Keats and Shelley, etc. The boards of their covers were often a deep blue in color, and the quality of their paper in many of the runs was poor enough to invite quick discoloration - but still, you could get all of Plutarch's Lives or Les Miserables or the novels of Jane Austen, for around $1! This was the Modern Library philosophy at the time, in competition with the likes of Penguin and Everyman: great literature cheap.
The third era was beige: for a brief interval around the 1970s, Modern Library editions started coming out in a uniform style: brown boards on the covers, and plain beige paper dust jackets. I knew lots of people in the industry at the time who deplored this new look, but I loved it; what could say "the literature is what's important, not the packaging" more directly and clearly than the book equivalent of school uniforms? This was the era where I originally stocked up on Modern Library editions (most of which have now dispersed to the four corners of the multiverse, without my intent or recall): Arthur Waley's Tale of Genji, Plutarch, the great philosophers, and their three-volume Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. These books were great: solidly put together and pleasingly plump in the hand. They were an unprepossessing joy to own, which makes it all the more mysterious why I currently own so few ... but that's one of the ongoing enigmas of a constantly-changing personal library, I guess ...
The fourth and current era is, ironically, beautiful. The bulk of Modern Library's output these days are paperbacks, not hardcovers, and somewhere along the line, somebody smart took the line aside and said, "Look, the original mission, producing great literature cheap? It won't work anymore - everything is more expensive, and it's virtually impossible anymore to marry quality with economy."
Whoever that person was, he was right - and so Modern Library not only took the opposite direction, it embraced the opposite direction: their books are now priced normally for trade paperbacks (picking the Modern Library edition no longer guarantees you the lowest price), but they are very of the the prettiest editions available, and that's not as contemptible as it sounds. These editions are marked by often excellent scholarship, and of course the works themselves are still immortal classics - but the books as physical objects are now the opposite of those beige-jacketed hardcovers from thirty years ago: they're very attractive-looking volumes, the type of things that give a little burst of pleasure every time you take one down from the shelf.
Probably this will be the last era for Modern Library - and for all other lines of 'great books' coming from publishers. After all, materials are only going to get more expensive, and readers who can even attempt to read these mighty, difficult, incredibly rewarding works are only going to dwindle in number, educational standards being what they are. I hope I'm wrong - I hope the future of the physical book has many eras, each more interesting than the last. But if publishing like this really is doomed, at least Modern Library - which brought so much great literature to so many people - is going out on a high note.