ML as a 'canon'?

j b krygier jbkrygie at
Thu Apr 12 09:17:37 EDT 2001

Hi ModLib,

Scot Kamins wrote:

> I think that the dust jackets is ONE of the elements that makes the
> series so collectable.
> Another aspect would be the canonical element. Taking any date in the
> history of Modern Library after the series had enough titles in it (say
> 1928 as the break point), one could argue that, if you were to read every
> book in the current catalog, you would have accomplished the reading list
> a decent liberal arts degree. This would make a far better library then
> that piece of junk that Adler came up with at the University of Chicago
> MANY years later.

While my wife has grown to like (even love) the
wall of MLs in our livingroom, she does grump
about the fact that they are mostly 'dead white
guys.'  This did, I tell her, reflect the status
of the 'canon' at the time (20s, 30s, 40s, 50s).

But more to the point: I am not sure you could
consider the ML at any particular time to be "the
canon" or even a particularly great 'canon.'  Early
on in my ML quest I assumed there was some
coherent logic behind selecting titles for the ML.

Then I read Gordon Neavill's dissertation on the
ML and realized that right from the beginning ML
was not quite so coherent.  Titles were added that
were available, and others that the publishers
wanted were not available.  Titles ML really
wanted to keep (Mann, Hemingway, Cather) were
yanked from the series for various reasons outside
the control of the ML.  You had to go to competing
series from other publishers (and it seems as if
every major publisher had a competing series) to
get some vital authors.  ML sometimes got mediocre
titles from important authors (Wharton) because
they could not get rights to the titles they

Finally, while I am ranting a bit, there are some
really peculiar titles in the ML.  Authors who are
all but forgotten, who I have a hard time
believing were ever really considered worthy of
being part of the canon.  No offense, but Irving
Fineman?  Ouida?  Fabre's book on worms?  Sheean?
Jackson?  Marjorie Fleming's book?  Reading the ML
provides you with at best a quirky 'liberal arts'
education, based on the dictates of the market,
fighting among rival publishers, copyright
restrictions, and the personal quirks of the folks
at Random House.

But I still love ML!  Indeed, I find the 'peculiar'
titles to be some of the most interesting in the
series - if only because they seem at odds with the
canonical aura of the ML.

John K.

j   b   k r y g i e r

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