The Wall Street Journal’s Tom Nolan focuses attention on the centenary of the Everyman’s Library, founded in 1906 by bookbinder-turned-publisher Joseph Malaby Dent to preserve great works of literature. The books found a fan in Knopf editor-in-chief Sonny Mehta, who read them while growing up in post-colonial India. “They were cheap, they were accessible, one found them in bookstores,” said Mehta. “If you were given books as gifts, they tended to be Everyman’s…..A lot of my early reading with classics — though one didn’t even know they were classics, I mean whether it was Dumas or Jules Verne or anything else — that’s what they tended to be.”
Which is why, as competitors like the Library of America and Modern Library encroached the market and paperbacks made classics even cheaper, Everyman’s fell into the hands of UK publisher Tom Campbell in 1990 – who needed an American partner, which turned out to be Mehta. A revived line, with an initial 46 titles (Austen to Zola), was debuted by Random House UK and Knopf in the U.S. in 1991. Since then, the Everyman’s Library — with old and new incarnations celebrating a combined 100th anniversary in the year just completed — has done 500 titles and sold 12 million books.
One avowed fan is Joan Didion, whose seven volumes of non-fiction were recently collected in the Everyman’s edition WE TELL OURSELVES STORIES IN ORDER TO LIVE. “I don’t know if you remember what it was like,” the California-born writer asked recently by telephone from New York, “to first have a book in your hand, whenever it was that you first bought a book? A whole lot of [its appeal] had to do with the way it looked and felt. I remember very distinctly: Somebody gave me a merchandise award at a bookstore in Sacramento, and I bought a Modern Library of Emily Dickinson and the collected poems of T.S. Eliot. And the Eliot had a smooth yellow cover; and the Emily Dickinson had sort of a classic Modern Library cover…pink and gray and black. I mean, it was the physical appearance of these books that meant a whole lot to me, then.”