By Henry Toledano

A talk given at the Book Club of California, 312 Sutter St. Suite 510, San Francisco, CA 94108 on September 23rd 2002

[Click to see the materials used to promote this speech.]

©2002 Henry Toledano
All Rights Reserved
Used by permission

[Headers in this article were added for reading clarity and are the responsibility of the editor.]

The Modern Library has had an enormous impact on the American literary scene. Two generations of students bought them avidly, for they were the cheapest books around of good literature. The series was first started in 1917 and at the time was the equivalent of the modern paperback. The idea of the Modern Library was Albert Boni's, one of the partners in the publishing firm of Boni Liveright, and was essentially a crib on the British Everyman series. The purpose of this series was to make available to the ever increasing mass of readers good titles by famous authors in cheap, attractive looking bindings. As far as this country was concerned there was one major snag with Everyman. American writers were totally unrepresented. Zero. The Modern Library sought to remedy this shortcoming.

[Toledano later amended this comment in a note to the Modern Library Mailing List: Joe Hill (Goodbooks, resident expert on Everyman) has pointed out that my statement that no American authors were represent in the series is inaccurate. He is right. I have a Bibliography of Everyman and should have checked. Melville, Emerson, Hawthorne, Alcott and a few others are represented. Hemingway, Faulkner, Fitzgerald, Steinbeck etc are not.]

The first title was Oscar Wilde's The Picture of Dorian Grey. The size of the book was 6 5/8" by 4 3/8" pocket-size and was made of a flexible leather-like binding (leatherette as it is known). The books came in typographical dust jackets. In fact a lot of people think that these earlier titles never had jackets. They did, but unfortunately they were very flimsy so that few have survived. Handsome copies of these early Modern Library in their original dust jackets go for pricey premiums. The first books were 60c each. Similar books put out by other publishing houses at the time sold for around $2. However, by 1920 the price had increased to 95c as prices had risen considerably in the three years since initiation. 95c was to remain the price of a standard Modern library book until 1946.

Cerf and Klopfer Buy & Transform the Series

In 1923 Bennett Cerf joined the staff of Boni Liveright as a Vice President. Apparently he was given this position because of a $25,000 loan he made the firm. At the time The Modern Library was by far the most profitable part of the Publishing House. But Bennet Cerf saw that it probably had even more potential if some changes were made and publicity was improved. He had approached Liveright on several occasions about buying the series, but each time was kicked out of his office. Then in 1925 Boni was complaining about his father-in-law who was driving him, Boni, crazy for the return of a loan he had made the firm. Again Cerf said that his problem could be solved instantly if he sold The Modern Library. This time Cerf was not thrown out of the room. The rest is history. Cerf and Klopfer bought the series in 1925 for $215,000. This included the rights and all the books then in the series 108 titles in all.

Immediately the two young publishers set about giving their purchase a new look. The bad titles were dropped. They had been introduced because Liveright perhaps owed somebody a favor, wanted to impress a girl, or simply because of some whim or other. One of the ingredients in the leatherette books was castor-oil. This stank in hot weather. The bindings had to be completely revamped. The binder they found was Elmer Adler, who was known to be good at his job and cheap. Further, they wanted a new logo for the series. Adler introduced them to Lucien Berhardt, a well known designer. In a short time he came up with the running torchbearer, which has been the Modern Library emblem since 1925 and remains so to this day. The logo appeared on both book and dust jacket. The titling on the book's spine was gilt as was the logo on the front cover. The dust jackets were similar to those published previously by Boni Liveright except the torchbearer logo replaced the BL on spine and front. The end-papers also incorporated the torchbearer motif. The same design is now used in the current series of Modern Library. Adler also set about working on a new format for the books. More of this in a moment. More pressing was better publicity. Catalogues at the time did not amount to much. Cerf and Klopfer wanted something more classy. Adler came up with something that fitted the bill.

Between 1925 and 1927 the new owners devoted their time exclusively to the Modern Library. Not a penny was taken out of the business. Cerf and Klopfer went to the Department stores and bookshops themselves. They checked their books on the shelves themselves and made sure that the missing titles were replaced. Buyers knew that they were meeting the actual publishers and liked that. Hundreds of new outlets were found. Sales began to soar. The investment more than paid for itself within those first two years.

Birth of Random House in 1927

The Modern Library, in fact, was doing so well that the new owners found themselves with more time than what they knew to do with. They played a lot of golf and bridge, but even then there was time to spare. Cerf says, in his autobiography, he missed the exciting days of the publication of a new book. Cerf and Klopfer decided that, as a sort of hobby, they would publish quality books they liked and at random. Thus Random House was born. The year was 1927. Most people think that The Modern Library is an offshoot of Random House. The contrary is the truth. Random House made its debut with a pamphlet announcing the publication of seven limited editions from the Nonesuch Press.

Pictorial Dust Jackets Introduced

In 1928 the first pictorial dust jacket was issued. This was The Romance of Leonardo da Vinci by Merejkowski. In the same year the number of available titles in Modern Library appeared on the dust jackets. At first on the rear panel and later on the verso of the jackets. This number is important, for I have used it in the Guide as a quick way of determining whether a dust jacket is suitably married to its book. It is not a 100 % accurate, but I believe very nearly so. The first number, indicating available titles in print, was 150.

In 1929 Adler's new format for the Modern Library was introduced. This was a flexible binding made of cloth over stiff pliable boards: Balloon cloth. The colors varied, but most were blue, brown or red. The torchbearer logo remained on the front. The spine was little changed from the leatherette editions. This pattern, with various decorations at the base of the spine remained in effect until 1940. New end-papers for the Modern Library incorporated Bernhard's running torchbearer and this is the same design that is used in the current Modern Library.

In 1929 new end-papers were introduced for the series. These were designed by Rockwell Kent, who had previously come up with the Random House trade mark the large house with R and H on each side and two smaller houses in the foreground. Kent's new Modern Library end-papers consisted of a rectangle surrounded by a sort of checkered pattern with a small "m" and a tall "l" as part of the design. These end-papers remained unchanged until 1967.

Giants and Other Changes

Modern Library Giants were introduced in 1931. Tolstoy's War and Peace, over 1,000 pages long, was the first title. The price was $1.00. The dimensions of these books were 5 3/4" by 8 1/4". The binding used for the first three titles was one that had been previously used by Random House: light tan cloth over stiff boards with a sort of bar code design on the front panel with the title cutting the bar code at the top and the author's name at the bottom underneath the bar code. No torchbearer appeared on the cover at all. For the following two years the binding style of the Giants followed that of the standard regular Modern Library. Then, in 1938 came an important change. The new binding consisted of stiff boards covered with linen with the title, authors name on the spine in dark panels and MODERN LIBRARY on a smaller, but similar dark panel at the base. The running torchbearer appeared between the two panels as well as on the center of the front cover.

The design is important, for it was the precursor of what was to appear in the regular standard series in 1939 and extending into 1940. The balloon cloth bindings were abandoned and entirely replaced by hardcover. If you had gone into Macy's in early 1940 you would have been able to pick up remaindered Modern Library in the flexible bindings for 38 cents! And of course the jackets would have been new. Anyway, to get back to the bindings, the new look was the work of Blumenthal, a well known designer at the time. The format was slightly larger than the Balloon cloth about 7" by 4 3/4". A dark panel (colors varied) appeared on the spine with title, author and "MODERN LIBRARY" on it and above the panel the running torchbearer. A similar dark panel also appeared centered on the front of the book, but excluded the words "MODERN LIBRARY". Framing the panel is a rectangle with the torchbearer underneath the panel on the right, but within the rectangle. All scripting and lines framing the panels were gilt. The Kent end-papers remained in use until 1967.

1940 to about 1963 saw the Modern Library at its zenith. Though the prices (for the regular Modern Library) had increased to $1.95 by the end of this period, they were still relatively cheap. The Giants were $3.95 in 1963. Nearly 900 titles had been published in the series: over 800 in the regular standard format and some 80 Giants. This excludes both paperback and illustrated Modern Library, which I will say more about in a moment. Many of you may have noticed that you do not see a number above four hundred on the dust jackets of the Modern Library. Yet I have just said that over 800 titles had been published as early as 1963 seven years before this particular incarnation of the series was to die. The fact is that numbers on the dust jackets were frequently used more than once. Titles were discontinued and replaced by others. Numbers used by dropped titles were then used again for new books appearing in the series. This is true for the Giants too, but in the case of these books very few titles were discontinued.

Beyond the Standard Series

There were other changes to the Modern Library during this time and I want to say a little about these now. They really amount to additions to the series. The first illustrated Modern Library appeared in 1944 and this was The Holy Bible issued in a slip-case and illustrated by Fritz Kredel. The price was $1.50. Other books in this format followed, but it was difficult to keep prices down and only twenty were published. They came in either slip-case or acetate dust jacket, sometimes both. There is only one book that is a first edition in its own right and that is Don Quixote by Cervantes illustrated by Salvador Dali. Of course in the jargon of the book trade the book is a "first thus", which means that it is not really a first, but is the first with these particular illustrations. There is also available a larger sized copy of this book put out by Random House. However, the Modern Library one is the true first with the Dali illustrations. Today a fine copy runs about $100.

The other interesting illustrated Modern Library is Alice in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll. I did not know of this title's existence when the first two editions of my Modern Library Price Guide were published. That is how scarce this particular book is! The fact is that Alice in the illustrated Modern Library was probably an accident. Some of you will know about the two volume boxed set of Alice and Through the Looking Glass put out by Random House. The first in the set is colored, whereas subsequent editions are in black and white. Anyway, some of the colored books were left over and the initial decision, I believe, was to use these extra books as a Book-of-the-Month club bonus. However, there was not sufficient number of books for this and instead they were published in the Modern Library. Only snag was that these books did not fit the Modern Library size specifications. If any of you get the chance to look at this title in Modern Library you will notice that the pages have been cut down to conform to the standard format in the series. A fine copy of this book might run retail as high as $500!

Another collection of Modern Library books started during this period were the paperbacks, not to be confused with the College series. These paperbacks are easily distinguishable by the running torchbearer on the spine as well as the number of the book preceded by a capital "P". "A MODERN LIBRARY PAPERBACK" appears on the front cover. 66 titles were published in all, P1 through P67, with P61 not used. The first ten titles were reprints taken from the standard series. Then a decision was made to add new titles, previously unpublished in Modern Library. The standard format for these books was just over 7" by 4 1/4". There are a couple of exceptions: On the Track of Prehistoric Man by Herbert Kuhn is about a quarter inch taller than the standard; I have no idea why. The other book is A Suite of 180 Drawings by Picasso and the Human Comedy by Michel Leiris and is the first American edition of this title. The book is about an inch wider than the other books in the series. A fine copy of it costs about $40. Subsequent editions of this book are the standard size. Another book of interest in the series is P22, The Long March by William Styron. This is a first in its own right, preceding the hardcover edition. Today its price runs a little over $100 for a fine copy. The series was published throughout the fifties. The first was issued at 95c and the last at $1.45.

Modern Library books were selling very well and of course Libraries wanted them. The only trouble was that the books were too fragile for frequent use. The problem was solved by issuing Modern Library in buckram re-enforced bindings. These books are the same sizes as the regular standard editions as well as the Giants. They were issued without dust jackets in a heavier cloth binding with a white strip of buckram re-enforcing the joints on the front and rear end-papers. These books at first glance look like their regular counterparts lacking dust jacket. In fact many dealers price them as such. In fact they are easily distinguished by having "BUCKRAM REINFORCED" and the number of the book gilt stamped on the lower part of the spine. These books are hard to find without having library stamps all over them. However, they are not much collected and fine copies currently run about $12 each for the standard Modern Library and $25 for the Giants. Better titles command a small premium. I want to say here that the Giants are incredibly hard to find. I have been collecting Modern Library for years and have only a dozen. There are 376 in the regular series and 71 in Giant.

Some Buckram Modern Library were published in the twenties, also (I believe) for libraries. I have seen few of them. I don't think they were much of a success and their publication ceased after a very short time.

The great days, rather decades, of the Modern Library were beginning to come to an end in 1963. Cheap paperbacks were flooding the market. In an attempt to rejuvenate Modern Library books a new look was given them. Blumenthal's bindings were replaced by a variety of covers. Fujita designed a stylized torchbearer as well as new end-papers. The series was no longer listed on the verso of the dust jacket: it was simply blank. In 1970 The Modern Library, which had been in print for over fifty years ceased. The last books in the series were William Styron's Nat Turner (number 396) in the standard format and Between Hume and Mill in the Giants (number 102).


The Modern Library was revived in 1977. As far as I can see the object was to return the series to its original aims, i.e. to produce good literature cheap. Unfortunately, things had changed since 1917. The new books were perfect bound, a misnomer, for the books were glued and not stitched like their predecessors. The bindings were in my opinion fairly ugly as were the dust jackets, which were a tan color. In 1980 an attempt was made to jazz up these books by putting a woodcut on the dust jacket and introducing new end-papers, looking like a chess board with the torchbearer in each square. Frankly, I was not impressed. The series was discontinued in 1985. 21 new titles had been added to the series 15 in the regular format and six Giants.

In 1987 one Giant paperback Victor Hugo's Les Miserables was published. I think there was a vague intention to start a Modern Library Book Club. However, it never got off the ground. This title, as far as I know, remains the only oversized Modern Library paperback up to this time.

In 1992 the series was again revived. This was 75 years after the birth of the Modern Library. Most of these new books are still in print and fresh titles are being issued fairly frequently. The format of the books and dust jackets are fairly standard: The books are board, covered with grey cloth with an intaglio image of the running torchbearer centered on the front panel. The script on the spines is gilt. The dust jackets have a grey or sepia portrait of the author both on the front cover and spine a brownish/gold color. The rear panel is a dark green. Currently the list of available titles appears on the verso of the jacket, though this was not the case with the first titles in this 75th Anniversary issue. More recently color has been added to the dust jackets and often a reprint with a multicolored jacket has signaled a first edition of the book , "1" appearing in a string of numbers on the copyright page. In fact many of these issues with colored jackets are not firsts, but reprints often issued to coincide with a movie tie-in. The best way to determine a first edition of Modern Library publications since 1977 is by the price on the dust jacket. I would not recommend collectors buying ML published in the last 25 years if they are price clipped.

Appendages & Ephemera

I would like to now say something about appendages to the Modern Library. This includes ephemera, Modern Library oddities, references and other things connected to the series. As I have said Modern Library books in their early days were cheap; they were perhaps fragile, but they were nevertheless attractive and well made. The fact that the signatures were stitched meant that the books were ideal for use in binding classes. You can see some examples of these in the exhibit. The price of these books is contingent on the quality of the binding. Another offshoot of the Modern Library is the pirated edition. Most have been made in Taiwan. The paper is flimsy and the binding strictly functional. The dust jackets usually have the Modern Library logo removed, but not always. A stamp in Chinese can more often than not be found at the beginning or end of the book The trick in finding these books in near fine or better dust jackets. Generally the jackets are in a mess. Pirated editions can be found in both regular and Giant format. There are also English and Canadian Modern Library. I have one English one. The only difference to its American counterpart, as far as I can make out, is that the price on the dust jacket is in shillings. I have never seen a Canadian edition. Then there are Modern Library gift editions usually put out before Christmas. They originally appeared two or three dust jacketed volumes in a slip-case. The bindings are a triangular shiny green. I have seen one of these sets, but never possessed one.

There is a lot of Modern Library ephemera. I will mention some, as well as a few items which strictly speaking are not ephemeral at all. I have seen publicity of all kinds: posters, catalogues, calendars, magazines and booklets advertising Modern Library, match boxes, pencils, and there is probably more I do not know about. I have seen Modern Library proofs, both for books and illustrations in the Illustrated editions. I have seen metal and wooden stamps, lamps and bookcases. Then, in another classification category are ML errors: books published upside down, with several end-papers, illustrated editions in standard bindings, the pagination muddled up, later books bound in earlier bindings and so on.

While on the subject of errors let me say something about the current series. This is a real howler I think. I refer to the two dust jacket photos of Ralph Waldo Emerson you can see here in the exhibit. Of course the younger man is the true Ralph Waldo Emerson. The other simply had the same names. The error was quickly corrected. I expect some junior clerk was told to get a photo of Ralph Waldo Emerson and he did just that. Incidentally while on the subject of Emerson you will note that the title was changed from The Complete Essays and Other Writings of Ralph Waldo Emerson in the first two Modern Library editions to The Selected Writings of Ralph Waldo Emerson. Somebody must have told the editors that the "Complete" was not that complete!

How I Started Collecting

I first started collecting Modern Library in the fifties. I bought them to read. I liked the titles. I liked the look of the books and their price was more reasonable than comparable publications. I did not see any Modern Library in England, where I was living at the time, but in Paris where I made frequent visits. Brentanos on avenue de l'Opera always had them, but never in first editions. Anyway, I had about 70 to 80 Modern Library when I first started collecting in earnest some 35 years later. I picked up titles I hadn't got, always with dust jacket as I did not like them without. As I scouted I noticed something very strange. The books always ran about three or four dollars each, whatever the title. This was wrong I thought, for some of the books were very hard to find, virtually impossible. The seed for a guide was sewn. I began work on the first edition in 1991. I was in the middle of an unpleasant divorce and was just getting into computers. I thought that the best way to keep myself off my personal problems as well as learning how to use the computer and in particular to master a database was to write a book. I was always told as a kid if you want to learn something the best way to do so is to write a book about it! Thus the first Price Guide came into being.

Collecting Today

Since the publication of the original Guide a lot has changed in the Modern Library. Initially collectors just wanted a book in dust jacket if they hadn't got it. Sometimes they upgraded if they saw a better copy. Modern Library could be found anywhere and everywhere. Used book stores usually were a good hunting ground, not only the cheap shops but the fancy ones as well. Then you could find copies in thrift stores, at flea markets, garage sales, estate sales, pretty well anywhere. I have even found copies lying about, on the sidewalk or on top of public garbage disposers throwaways! In the first Guide I said, and I had a book store at the time, Modern Library were easy money, for they were rarely more than $4 (even in expensive stores) and some could be priced and sold at fifteen or twenty dollars. All that has changed now. Modern Library are hard to find, especially fine copies. More and more people it seems are collecting. But collector's tastes have also changed. People want Modern Library not just in dust jackets, but first editions. Then very soon afterwards they wanted first editions in first issue dust jackets. Frankly, I am quite happy with a fine copy. In the 1995 and 1999 updates of the Guide I devoted a good deal more space to first editions and how to determine whether a dust jacket was suitably married to its book. Now, even a fairly common first edition (and not all ML are first editions even if so marked) will go for over $20 in less than fine condition. The earlier leatherette firsts in very good jackets will go for hundreds of dollars. However, you rarely see them.

If you are about to start collecting Modern Library today you need two things: deep pockets and a lot of space! On the whole the bargains have gone, though now and again you can still pick one up. However, I do suggest that you start by focusing on a particular aspect of the Modern Library: Blumenthal bindings in jacket for instance, or just Giants, illustrated editions or paperbacks. The paperbacks incidentally can still be found very cheaply. So can some ephemera. But in my opinion the buckram bindings are today a great bargain. They can still be found for five or six dollars and they are very hard to find without library marks all over them. The Giants are even more difficult to find than the regular format. I have 12 Giants, as I said earlier and I have over 30 Boni Liveright in at least very good dust jackets. If you conclude from this that Giant buckram are more difficult to find than the leatherette in jackets you are probably right. I think so anyway. If you are going to collect, and this applies to all collecting, stick to the golden rule: buy what you like and what interests you and in the best condition you can afford.

The Current Series

I will say a few words on the current Modern Library series. In my opinion the new titles are well chosen. The books look attractive. Their prices are not cheap, but you can pick them up in used book stores at 60% of their retail value. And you might even do better with the firsts, for the original price was almost certainly cheaper than the current one. And of course 60% of less, is less than 60% of more! I would never buy these books if they are price clipped, for that's the way you tell a first. I should say that I suspect that the current series have small print runs as I have seen some titles in their 7th, 8th or 9th printings in only a few years. I do not collect the current paperbacks. They are being churned out like pills in a pharmaceutical company. Their formats and prices are not consistent. Even more recently is the Chronicle series: essentially history books with titles like Islam, Nazi Germany, The Irish, The Americans, The Cold War, The Holocaust, London etc. Over thirty have been published to date. I have seen very few of these books and only two (both in my possession) in used book stores. The format is the same as the regular Modern Library. They could turn out to be collectable. Then there are Modern Library books on tape. I even have a Modern Library CD for a Mac. Further, a Valentine's Day series was tried. These were mini-paperbacks, $1.99 each. Six titles were published in 1996. That was all. The only copy I have seen is the one I have and was given to me by Random House.

As an appendage to what I have just said I checked Random House online to see what Modern Library titles were available, and lo and behold there is yet another new series. This time on Food. I know absolutely nothing about it.

The Modern Library also has its associations with California. Several authors came from here or lived here. Steinbeck is the most notable. But there are others including Robinson Jeffers, Isherwood, Huxley, Henry Miller, Saroyan, Scott Fitzgerald, Mark Twain, Atherton, Faulkner, Elizabeth Porter, Bret Harte; and Norris's Mcteague and Dashiell Hammett's The Maltese Falcon are both set in San Francisco. Jack London is represented in Great Modern Short Stories and Great Tales of the American West includes some stories set in this state.

Concluding Comments

Finally, before taking your questions, I would like to say that if any of you have Modern Library books that you wish to sell I would perhaps be interested in buying them. However, they must be in presentable condition and in dust jackets. My specialities are Modern Library and Edward Gorey, First Editions, Art and Photography as well as a smattering of other subjects. If any of you are interested in selling or buying, for that matter, see me afterwards and I will give you a card. If any of you are interested in buying the current Modern Library Price Guide I have some for sale at a specially reduced price for this event. This is the limited numbered edition, a 100 copies is the limitation, and you can buy it for $45 and bona fide dealers can get a 20% discount on the $45 price with a valid California resale number. The limited edition normally sells for $65.00. Thank you very much.