Satterfield review in Portland's Willamette Weekly

Scot Kamins kamins at
Fri Jan 10 18:43:01 EST 2003


ML Listserv's own Matt Buckingham wrote the following article this 
week in Portland's Willamette Weekly. Thanks for the plug, Matt!!


"the world's best books": taste, culture, and the modern library
by Jay Satterfield
(University of Massachusetts Press, 248 pages, $29.95)

The nation's leading website devoted to the history and collecting of 
the Modern Library series is operated by Portlander Scot Kamins at 

Between 1917 and 1970, the Modern Library was a cultural institution 
that supplied America's burgeoning middle class with uniformly bound, 
hardcover copies of "the world's best books" for about a buck. Author 
Jay Satterfield recounts in captivating detail how publishers Bennett 
Cerf and Donald Klopfer purchased the faltering reprint series in 
1925 and turned the Modern Library into a modest empire that would 
ultimately bankroll the establishment of Random House.

The Modern Library achieved its success by walking the thin edge 
between culture and commerce. On one hand, Cerf and Klopfer included 
enough left-leaning, modernist titles to win the approval of bohemian 
intellectuals. On the other, the publishers put the screws to the 
nation's booksellers to install bigger store displays and devote more 
shelf space to the books.

The Modern Library wasn't all a high-minded crusade to promote world 
literature. If a title didn't sell its quota of 2,000 books a year, 
it was ruthlessly dropped from the series--a fate that befell 
Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby in the 1930s. (Today, ironically, 
Gatsby is one of the most coveted titles by Modern Library 
collectors: A copy sold on eBay last month for more than $1,200.)

World War II, which precipitated the explosion in paperback 
publishing, sounded the death knell for the Modern Library, although 
the series would soldier on for 25 more years. Regrettably, 
Satterfield gives short shrift to the series' rapid decline in the 
late '60s, which would see the introduction of some of the Modern 
Library's most ambitious titles, such as Catch-22 by Joseph Heller 
and V. by Thomas Pynchon. Efforts to revive the series in the '90s 
never quite recaptured the magic: The books now cost almost as much 
as regular trade editions. Matt Buckingham
Originally published
Wednesday, January 08, 2003
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