Modern Library

Boni & Liveright (New York, NY)
Series Dates: 1917-1925
Size: 6.5″ x 4.25″

The Modern Library / Random House (New York, NY)
Series Dates: 1925-1970 (revived in the 1980s)
Size: 6.5″ x 4.25″ (1925-1939), 5″ x 7.25″ (1940-1970)

John Lane | The Bodley Head (London, UK)
Series dates: 1934-1936
Size: 5.5″ x 8″

Hamish Hamilton (London, UK)
Series dates: 1936-1940

mlfinds
Box of old Modern Library books (and a few other series), all in jackets, from the 1910s and 20s, purchased as a lot for $100 in 2005.

The Modern Library, along with Everyman’s Library, are among the most extensive and long-lived 20th century reprint series.

A community of collectors and especially Scot Kamins have been working since 1996 to compile information about the series as published by Boni & Liveright (1917-1925), The Modern Library (1925-1927) and Random House (1927-) at Collecting the Modern Library.

Henry Toledano’s The Modern Library Price Guide, 1917-2000 is an indispensable listing of all titles, dates, jackets with estimated values.

Gordon Neavill’s The Evolution of a Literary Canon: A Descriptive Bibliography of the Modern Library Series, 1917-1991 will be a comprehensive bibliography of the Modern Library series when published.


The Modern Library series was published and sold in the U.S. but there were two attempts to market the series in the UK. According to Barry Neavill, “Allen Lane, who launched the paperback revolution in the English-speaking world when he founded Penguin Books in 1935, sold a number of Modern Library Giants in Britain between 1934 and 1936 priced at five and six shillings. Lane only sold titles that were not copyrighted in the UK. He ordered printed sheets from New York with a special imprint for Lane on the title page—either Bodley Head in the earliest copies or Penguin Books London in the later copies. (Some may have just used Modern Library). The books were bound and jacketed in England.” (source)

A copy of Boswell’s Life of Samuel Johnson, undated but with a Bodley Head imprint on the jacket and book (probably ca. 1935). The differences on the UK jacket include the Bodley Head name on the spine, back cover and flap. The book is not numbered (it was #2 in the U.S. series). The price of five shillings (net) is printed on the front flap and also rear flap, along with a list of titles available in the UK. All were Modern Library Giants (larger format, more pages than the regular Modern Library). Fourteen titles are listed on the jacket as “New Volumes.”

Plutarch’s Lives
Tolstoy’s War and Peace
Carlyle’s French Revolution
Bulfinch’s Mythology
Hugo’s Les Miserables
Boswell’s Life of Johnson
The Complete Poems of Keats and Shelley
Gibbon’s Decline and Fall (2 vols.)
The Compete Novels of Jane Austen
Twelve Famous Restoration Plays
Scott’s Quentin Durward, Ivanhoe, and Kenilworth
Montagne’s Essays
Cervante’s Don Quixote

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The books are bound in cloth, different from the balloon cloth used on Modern Library books in the mid-1930s.

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The interior of the book is mostly identical to the US versions, on the half title page:

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The only difference is the John Lane The Bodley Head, London imprint on the title page.

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The book is undated.

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Another UK Modern Library copy, Twelve Famous Plays of the Restoration and Eighteenth Century, also undated but a later UK printing. Differences include the removal of the Bodley Head imprint from the jacket replaced by “The Modern Library” in six different places. The price has been raised to 6/- shillings (net) with a red sticker over the original 5/- shilling price. A few additional titles are listed on the rear flap of the jacket:

Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina
Darwin’s The Origin of the Species and The Descent of Man

One title is missing: Montagne’s Essays. It was removed possibly because of copyright issues.

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The binding is the same except for the Modern Library imprint on the spine.

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Penguin Books Limited replaces the Bodley Head imprint on the title page:

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Neavill continues: “Beginning in 1936 Hamish Hamilton (Cerf’s favorite British publisher) arranged to bring out a number of regular ML titles and several Giants under the imprint Hamish Hamilton (The Modern Library). He imported books in balloon cloth with his own title page from New York and had new and very striking jackets designed in England.

He ran into copyright problems with a number of titles on his original list of 25 titles that were announced to the trade in August 1936. It turned out that many of the titles he thought were ok in terms of copyright were not, and he couldn’t sell them after all (he even had the jackets printed when the copyright problems emerged). Cerf and Klopfer preferred dealing with Hamilton, but Lane wasn’t out of the picture altogether. He continued to sell a few Giants, and for a time seems to have secured copies of the 2-volume Gibbon from an American wholesaler after Cerf and Klopfer stopped selling to him. Lane could be difficult to deal with and paid his bills very slowly, and at this point Cerf and Klopfer had authorized Hamilton to sell the ML Gibbon. The British ML’s never really caught on, and Hamilton’s attempts to sell the ML in Britain came to an end with the outbreak of WWII.”  (source)