Libraries & Culture 39.1 (2004) 98-99
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The World's Best Books: Taste, Culture and the Modern Library. By Jay Satterfield. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 2002. 240 pp. $29.95. ISBN 1-55849-353-0.
At a time when many cultural critics bemoaned America's apathetic relation to literature, the Modern Library series achieved the dual status of commercial phenom and critical darling. Tracing its inception, rise, and dramatic pitfalls, Jay Satterfield elucidates the innovative sleights of hand undertaken by publishers Boni and Liveright and, later, by Klopfer and Cerf. Yet the book stands not merely as a history of the publishing series but rather as a cultural ethnography, detailing the emerging professional-managerial class as well as the rising cadre of critics hungry for "genuine" culture. As Satterfield suggests, the Modern Library's approaches to advertising, distribution, manufacturing, and title selection made it a watershed not only in the publishing industry but also in the development of a distinctly modern American culture.
Satterfield's analysis begins with publisher Ben W. Huebsch's experiments in 1905, particularly his importing of European models of philosophy and literature from writers such as Otto Pfleiderer and James Joyce. Albert Boni and Horace Liveright undertook a similar project in 1917, initiating their Modern Library series with titles from writers like Oscar Wilde and Friedrich Nietzsche. Satterfield argues that the strength of the series was its composite appeal to intellectual stimulation and economic value. The publishers took cues from their radical socialist Greenwich Village consumer base by stressing the series' egalitarian nature: not only did readers have the freedom to select from a variety of titles, they could do so for sixty cents each.
Herein lies the bulk of Satterfield's argument: that the Modern Library succeeded in light of ingenious combinations of highbrow culture and lowbrow commercialism. By way of comparison, the book traces the mixed histories of two roughly contemporary publishing mainstays: the Book-of-the-Month Club and Dr. Eliot's Five-Foot Shelf of Harvard Classics. As Satterfield explains, the former's unabashed commercialism was scoffed at by critics, whereas the latter's elitism often alienated it from consumers. Klopfer and Cerf largely overcame such obstacles via a tour de force advertising campaign. [End Page 98]
Beyond its remarkably inexpensive price, the series garnered commercial success not necessarily from the sale of books but from the sale of an idea: the possible acquisition of modern taste and culture. The series' imitation leather covers, signature colophon, and quality binding made it especially appealing to those desirous of compiling a library of both avant-garde and entertaining literature. In keeping with its egalitarian thrust, advertisements also stressed portability and choice. Such selling points attempted to cross gender lines as well, as illustrations often depicted both men and women. To further ensure equal opportunity sales, the publishers promoted the series in a variety of periodicals such as Atlantic Monthly and the Ladies' Home Journal.
Yet bookstores and magazines were only the tip of the promotion machine. Klopfer and Cerf notoriously sought market expansion. The creation of their own Book-a-Month plan is just one example of their attempts at diversification. The publishers also dabbled in pyramid schemes and promotional contests, not to mention sales through railway stations and private school contracts. Most effective, however, was their encroachment upon the retail outlet market, namely shops such as Macy's and Bloomingdale's. This new product placement triggered pricing wars, making the front page of newspapers with headlines such as "Merchants Gone Mad." Klopfer and Cerf adopted this same madness in their perpetual repackaging and reselection of the series.
The trademark leaping torchbearer passed through the creative hands of both Lucian Bernhard and Rockwell Kent, while book covers transformed from imitation leather to flexible cloth. Each packaging effort sought to distance the series from stifled genteel culture yet simultaneously endeavored to connote a sense of "class." Book selection trafficked along similar lines, as the publishers consistently marketed "modern classics"—works of intellectual vigor that were popular without being rampantly commercial. As part...