The World's Best Books
Taste, Culture, and the Modern Library
An insightful examination of a respected American publishing institution
In October 1930, Macy's department store in New York City used the inexpensive book series "The Modern Library of the World's Best Books" as a loss-leader to draw customers into the store. Selling for only nine cents a copy, the small-format, modern classics attracted crowds of buyers. Businessmen, housewives, students, bohemian intellectuals, and others waited in long lines to purchase affordable hard-bound copies of works by the likes of Tolstoy, Wilde, Joyce, and Woolf. It was a significant moment in American cultural history, demonstrating that a series of books respected and praised by the nation's self-appointed arbiters of taste could attract a throng of middle-class consumers without damaging its reputation as a vehicle of "serious culture."
The Modern Library's reputation stands in sharp contrast to that of similar publishing ventures dismissed by critics as agents of "middlebrow culture," such as the Book of-the-Month Club. Writers for the New Republic, the Nation, and the Bookman expressed their fears that mass-production and new distribution schemes would commodify literature and deny the promise of American culture. Yet although the Modern Library offered the public a uniformly packaged, preselected set of "the World's Best Books," it earned the praise of these self-consciously intellectual critics.
Focusing on the Modern Library's marketing strategies, editorial decisions, and close attention to book design, Jay Satterfield explores the interwar cultural dynamics that allowed the publisher of the series to exploit the forces of mass production and treat books as commodities while still positioning the series as a revered cultural entity. So successful was this approach that the modern publishing colossus Random House was built on the reputation, methods, and profits of the Modern Library.
"Satterfield's writing style is clear, well structured, and fluid. His arguments on behalf of the Modern Library's importance and influence are convincing. The information and observations he presents on book advertising and retailing are fresh and sound. His chapter on the production and design of the series is very engaging."—Thomas L. Bonn, author of Heavy Traffic and High Culture: New
American Library as Literary Gatekeeper
in the Paperback Revolution