Nonesuch Library

aka/ Compendious Series

Nonesuch Press (London, UK)
Series dates: 1927-1977
Size: 5″ x 7.75″

Random House (New York, NY)
Series dates: 1933-1977
Size: 5″ x 7.75″

“The Nonesuch Press was established in 1923 in London by Francis Meynell, Vera Mendel, and David Garnett. Although Nonesuch Press was operational until the 1970’s, it hit its peak in the 20’s and 30’s. Using a small handpress to design the books with the quality of a fine press, the books were actually printed by commercial printers so that they would be more accessible by the general public. Meynell believed that machine presses could be made to achieve fine quality. This is in contrast to earlier designer book printers, such as William Morris and the Kelmscott Press, which believed that only handpress books could achieve exquisite quality.” (source)

In 1926 the Nonesuch Press initiated an agreement with Bennett Cerf, of the Modern Library (and, in 1927, Random House), to distribute Nonesuch titles in the US. For Cerf, the high quality Nonesuch books, particularly those issued in limited editions, were a means to boost the image of his firm, founded on the inexpensive Modern Library series Cerf purchased from Boni & Liveright in 1925. The relationship with Cerf and the Modern Library were fortuitous for Nonesuch, as it provided a means of distributing their books (in the network already established to distribute Modern Library books) and, eventually, funds that helped defray the costs of editing and producing new Nonesuch titles.

The Nonesuch Library consists of a series of 15 single volume editions compiling key literary works of major writers and poets published beginning in 1927. These titles, unlike most published by the Nonesuch Press, were in the publisher’s “unlimited” category and could be reprinted as long as there was demand. While cheaper and less extravagant, the unlimited titles published by Nonesuch were still of very high quality (editing and production).

Initially, the series had no name, but by the mid 1930s was referred to informally as the Compendious Series. That series name was used in a few Nonesuch Press yearly book prospectuses beginning in the mid 1930s. The Nonesuch Library series name was first used in a 1937 prospectus, and shows up in books and on jackets consistently after 1952, when the Nonesuch Library, Ltd. is incorporated as a separate entity from the Nonesuch Press.

The first book in the then unnamed series, was The Poetry and Prose of Blake edited by Geoffrey Keynes. Issued in August of 1927, the book sold for 12s/6d (buckram) or 1 pound / 1s (limp orange parchment) in the UK, and, correspondingly, $3.50 or $8.50 via Random House in the US. The Blake title was reprinted through 1975, revealing the staying power of these well-edited books in the market.

A 1934 publisher prospectus describes the series titles:

‘The aim in this series is to give, by clever selection and appropriate editorial apparatus, a true conspectus of the genius of these writers; and, by proper planning of the physical elements of the books, to give it in a form both handsome and handy. Each book is treated as a separate typographical problem; but all are of one size and of one style of binding. The compression of a vast deal of matter (an average of more than a third of a million words) in a little space without sacrifice of legibility and of grace is no easy matter, but it may fairly be claimed that in this series the problem has been solved. A late development has been the making of impressions on Oxford India paper. These are well worth the extra charge, since the use of this paper caused the printing to be brighter and the volumes to be smaller and lighter.’ (source)

By the early 1930s the depression was taking its toll on the Nonesuch Press and Meynell began to search for a buyer for the firm. Random House was interested, but found itself unable to raise the cash in the depths of the depression.

In 1936 George Macy of the US-based Limited Editions Club acquired Nonesuch, allowing Meynell to continue publishing both limited edition titles and the unlimited titles. 1937 was the first time the name “Nonesuch Library” was used officially, and it appeared, sporadically, on books from that point onward. In the UK, the series was managed by Robert Leighton and Faber and Faber took over the sales and distribution of Nonesuch Library titles, and Random House continued to sell the books in the US. The four titles added to the series in 1939 were actually Random House productions, repackaged under the Nonesuch Library series name:

De Quincey, edited by Stern
Johson, edited by Levin
Lewis Carroll
Pushkin, edited by Yarmolinsky

All were originally published in the Modern Library or with a Random House imprint.

In 1952 Meynell purchased Nonesuch back from Macy and established The Nonesuch Library, Ltd. to develop and market Nonesuch Library (formerly Compendious Series) books. Again, Random House continued to market the Nonesuch Library titles in the US. Some of the books were not reprinted, but many were reissued many times through the mid 1970s. In in 2005 Peter Mayer, former CEO of Penguin Books, purchased the Nonesuch Press and began reissuing some of its titles, including a few Nonesuch Library titles, through his Duckworth and Overlook Press imprints.


 

A list of titles in the Nonesuch Library below includes the original date of publication and, if available, the number of reprints of the title and the last reprint date. This information is from John Dreyfus, A History of the Nonesuch Press (London: The Nonesuch Press, 1981).

Blake, edited by Keynes: 1927 (reprinted 9 times through 1967)
Donne, edited by Hayward: 1929 (reprinted 13 times through 1975)
Hazlitt, edited by Keynes: 1930 (reprinted 6 times through 1948)
Coleridge, edited by Potter: 1933 (reprinted 4 times through 1971)
Morris, edited by Cole: March 1934 (reprinted 3 times through 1974)
Swift, edited by Hayward: November 1934 (reprinted 7 times through 1963)
Shakespeare Anthology, edited by Farjeon: 1935 (reprinted 1 time through 1945)
Whitman, edited by Holloway: March 1938 (reprinted 7 times through 1971)
Milton, edited by Visiak: March 1938 (reprinted 4 times through 1969)
De Quincey, edited by Stern: April 1939 (not reprinted)
Johson, edited by Levin: May 1939 (not reprinted)
Lewis Carroll: October 1939 (reprinted 11 times through 1977)
Pushkin, edited by Yarmolinsky: November 1939 (not reprinted)
Byron, edited by Quennell: 1949 (not reprinted)
Shelly, edited by Glover: 1951 (not reprinted)


The copy of Hazlitt’s Selected Essays below is dated both 1930 (the original date of publication in the UK) and 1947 (the date this actual book was printed). During the post-WW2 era the jackets for titles sold in the UK and US seem to be the same, using a design suggesting the Nonesuch palace. The jackets are, then, common to the series, varying only in the color used to print the jacket.

for distribution in the U.S. Some of the series titles seem to be UK editions with UK jackets sold in the U.S. (such as the title below). Other’s with different jackets and bindings seem to have been printed in the US. I am not sure if this copy was purchased in the UK and brought to the US (where I bought it) or if Random House distributed UK titles in the US. A description of the series fills the front jacket flap. A price of 15s is indicated, making, I assume, this a copy sold in the UK.

The rear of the jacket describes the Hazlitt title in detail. The rear flap lists eleven titles available (not including Hazlitt) at the time. Missing are the Shakespeare Anthology, and the as yet unpublished Byron and Shelly titles.

Green cloth binding with minimal gold typography and decorations for the binding:

The half title page provides an alternative title for the book: “The Centenary Edition of Hazlitt’s Selected Essays” which was the title used when this book was first issued in 1930.

The title page with the Nonesuch and Random House imprints, and the date of 1946.

The copyright page indicates “First Edition December 1930” – maintained from the first printing (although this copy was printed in 1946). The book was printed in Glasgow by Robert Maclehose & Co., as per the indication at the bottom of the copyright page.

The Maclehose printing indication is also found on the last page in the book.