Collecting Modern Library Books

In the period during which I was working to create a store and open it for business I was asked many times if I would specialize in anything. This is not a question that I spent much time deliberating over. Most of my favorite bookshops have been general interest stores; they tried to find good books of all types, and offer books that fit their customers’ needs.

Still, I now realize that, without consciously intending to, I am in the process of becoming a specialist. It seems obvious now, but as I worked to fill the store I wasn’t aware how powerfully my tastes and interests – my personality – would contour the store’s collection. This is obvious, for example, in how many good history, biography and philosophy books I quickly acquired, and how few good science books I’ve found. As I’ve mentioned before, I have many hundreds of good baseball books; and relatively few on golf or auto racing. But the real specialty that I’ve found, and that I am now embracing, is Modern Library books.

collecting modern library books
Collecting Modern Library

Over the past 20 years, I have bought quite a few Modern Library books. These appeal to me for two chief reasons: they are inexpensive and they are (most of them, at least) the perfect size for a book. There are other good reasons to collect Modern Library books, beginning with the quality of the paper, the overall durability of the bindings, and the design, including the Rockwell Kent endpapers. And the catalogue contains all worthwhile titles, many of which have been forgotten by modern readers and dropped from the current canon of classic literature. But if you are willing to go on a blind date with a book, if it was published by Modern Library, you’ll probably be glad you took a chance.

For me though, it is the size and the price that are most important. I started buying Modern Library books because I was so often finding them for $1 or less at thrift stores or book sales; people didn’t seem to prize them and they were often priced below paperbacks of the same title. By the time I decided to open my store I had about 40 Modern Library books, about half with dust jackets. Many were titles that I would not otherwise have picked up. George Bernard Shaw’s plays and “The Late George Apley” by John P. Marquand are two examples. Since I started buying for the store, I’ve found many more and because they are relatively inexpensive to acquire, I can usually price them at $5 (without dust jackets). So I have become an evangelist for the Modern Library. “These are the perfect books,” I tell people. There are some 750 titles in the series and most are the 7 ¼ by 5 inch size, smaller than many current paperbacks. They feel good in your hands, can slide easily into a coat pocket and they are solid, hardy books, even those 60 years old. The series began in 1917 and has been in publication almost ever since. The series was suspended for a few years in the 1970s and, though the books published after that are not as interesting to me, they are still very good books. The first editions are more expensive, but since I don’t care very much about first editions, I am happy to encourage readers to buy the common editions.

I don’t know anyone around here who collects Modern Library books. I am anxious, however, to see if I can plant some seeds and create some demand. I’ll be very pleased if after a year or two I’ve developed a happy enclave of Modern Library appreciators here in the North Carolina Piedmont.

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