An Essay: KFC’s Everyman’s Library project

el colophonI was a very grumpy reader when 2006 began. Both the Giller and Man Booker in 2005 had produced frustrating and frankly not very good shortlists and I had spent a lot of the fall reading bad books. A return to classic novels seemed an ideal solution.

So I headed into the basement to look for possibilities. Most of the likely candidates (Dostoyevsky, Tolstoy, Updike, Nabokov, Waugh, etc.) I had read in my youth and the shelves showed it — cheap paperback copies that after decades on the shelf promised to fall apart somewhere around page 200 of a 600-page work.

A chance encounter with Albert Camus’ The Plague tucked away in the corner of a local bookshop changed all of that. It was a hardcover Everyman’s Library version and I immediately remembered that the EL colophon had been an earmark for me in my youth — if they published a novel, I should probably read it. Annie Dillard makes a similar observation about the influence of the Modern Library on her in her memoir, An American Childhood. Like her, I had checked St. Augustine’s Confessions out of the library based on the colophon — it turned out not to be quite as racy as I hoped. Alice Munro also makes reference to the EL motto in one of the stories in The View From Castle Rock: “Everyman, I will go with thee and be thy guide, in thy most need to go by thy side,” a quote from the morality play that has has been printed at the start of all but the first two EL volumes.

Everyman's bookcase 1 (2)Whatever…my Everyman’s Library project was begun. On top of my readerly grumpiness, there was the incentive of our new house, complete with a library with custom-built shelves. In addition to attractive volumes of contemporary works, filling those shelves with well-produced classics that I knew I would turn to again seemed to be in order. I didn’t realize it for a few months, but this was actually a centenary project — EL produced its first volumes in 1906, went through some tough times after my university days and was relaunched in 1991. The picture above shows about two-thirds of the project; I had to turn the corner and expand onto additional shelves once I really got going.

A quick internet search showed the viability of the project. While the books are hard to find in bookstores (a precious few, like Hatchard’s in Piccadilly, have dedicated sections but those stores are continents away for this book buyer), online sellers had them all. With appropriate discounts, most of them arrived at the front door for less than $20 Cdn a book — just about the same price as a trade paperback and for a much better book, both in content and production. The cloth covers are not super-fancy, but they are very nice — those with dust covers are equally well done (I did debate about removing the dust covers and decided against it). The binding is excellent; after the first 50 pages most of the books will lie open on your lap. I confess to snobbery about well-produced books. If I am reading a classic, I’d like the book to feel like a classic. EL does that, all at a reasonable price.

The project is now pretty much complete. I have somewhere in excess of 130 classic novels (and am proud to say I have already read about two-thirds of them since starting it). That represents most of the EL fiction collection — I’m not a Dickens fan, so there are none of those, and I’m still wondering about whether I should expand into short story collections. New issues produce a handful of volumes each year, but I am now getting old enough that I often already have handsome hardcover copies of the new issues.

The project did produce some offshoots. The Modern Library (whose covers I don’t find nearly as attractive) does publish some titles (notably Proust) that EL does not — so I have about 15 of those. I am also a selective buyer of Folio Society volumes. They are expensive, but if you like the book, well worth the investment. They fill up a few more shelves. And I have a small collection of Library of America books — writers like William Maxwell and Sinclair Lewis who are hard to find in hard cover anywhere else.

So when I settle into my reading chair (it is an Eames chair from Herman Miller, another reader’s luxury I could not resist) to take on the latest questionable book (or in the case of last year’s Booker shortlist, a string of questionable books) it only takes an upward glance to remind me that there are dozens of books to be read and reread that will offer a great return on the investment. And some days, it is just fine to look at the books to remind my of the joys that still await.

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25 Responses to “An Essay: KFC’s Everyman’s Library project”

  1. Trevor Says:

    I’ve been anxious to see the content of this essay, Kevin. I’m happy to see a picture! A few years ago my wife bought me my first EL book: A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. I was teaching it at the time, and my Norton Critical edition was well used (though I’m a book snob too, and on the outside, you’d never know the book was read) with more marginalia than in any other book. I have since expanded my own collection of these books, slowly but surely, and they are currently the only main books on display in our living room.

    While at first I was hesitant to buy the ones that collect an author’s work (all of Bech, or several Waugh), I got over that quickly, finding the essays and the book construction well worth it. I even added Rabbit Angstrom, though I’m a bit upset since on the spine it reads “Rabbit: Angstrom”. A minor error in a great collection.

    By the way, I look forward to future posts with pictures of your shelves!

  2. Tony S Says:

    For non-English, I am very concerned with who the translator is. Does EL use care in selecting their translations, and do they keep up to date with new translations of old novels?

  3. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Thanks for the comment, Trevor — I meant to mention how much I appreciate the essays (they are uniformly good and useful, particularly with some of the more oscure titles) but got so carried away that I forgot.

    I did have to go check my Rabbit Angstrom — my edition has no colon on either the dust jacket or the cover. So, just as misprinted stamps have extra value, perhaps your editiion is something special. It is a very good example of why I got into the project — while I had all four novels they came in a variety of forms and could not even be shelved together.

  4. KevinfromCanada Says:

    I don’t pay a lot of attention to translators Tony so I think my best advice is to send you to their website. My impression is that it is a mixed bag of established and new translations (e.g. their Dostoevskys are the new Peaver-Volokhonsky versions) — depending mainly on how long the book has been in the EL roster. I certainly have not run into any problems with translations.

  5. Colette Jones Says:

    I have two of these but one of them I probably will not read because of the translation. Death in Venice by Thomas Mann, translated by HT Lowe-Porter. I learned from contributors to Stewart’s World Literature Forum that this translator took some liberties with things she didn’t agree with such as homosexuality. I think translation matters quite a lot. As I cannot read the original, I want the translation to be as true as possible.

  6. Carole Says:

    Hi Kevin
    Thanks for this post, you clearly value the weight and feel of a book not just it’s contents. Am I the only person to smell the book before I buy it and to be choosy about which cover I buy? But why no Dickens? For years I avoided him until eventually I plunged into Bleak House (who could resist a promise of spontaneous human combustion!) and towards the end had to tell a friend that I couldn’t talk to her I was too busy reading. Now I am rationing Dickens like fine wine so that I don’t read all of them at once.

    Carole

  7. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Carole: No Dickens because I used to have a complete set, picked up at a silent auction for a literacy charity. I read a number of titles but found it hard to engage. My playwright friend, Eugene Stickland, (whom I posted on in From Page to Stage) loves Dickens and has used references in a number of his plays. So I gave him my set, on the understanding that I had access to it when needed. Hence, I do have access and can save on shelf space — and know the set is getting more use that it would if I had kept it.

    Smell, eh? An interesting concept — since I order most books on line, I’ll admit it is not a criterion for me. Which in no way is meant as a critical comment.

  8. Blithe Spirit Says:

    Thanks for posting the photo of your shelves Kevin – it’s making me think. I too have quite a large collection of Everymans – the ribbon bookmark in each one is a nice touch – but I’ve shelved them by colour (which more or less corresponds to the century of original publication). It gets complicated with 20th century authors though, because some of them are in the blue bindings, and others in the contemporary classics line with the red and black dust covers, and some are in both. So maybe I need to rethink my shelving and do as you have (I assume they are just shelved alphabetically by author). I also have a few of the Modern Library – I take those dust jackets completely off, because I like the uniform gray of the bindings. They are shelved right next to my bookcase of Persephone books and the two publishers compliment each other very well. Very easy on the eyes – not that I’d ever ahem “decorate” with books, based on their colour. Although I do have a bookcase full of out of print Viragos as well with their lovely green spines.
    I understand completely what you mean about the ease and joy of turning to the classics when one gets fed up with the often over-enthusiastic praise heaped on contemporary literature. Some of it is completely warranted, but if I read another review comparing a slight chicklit novel to Jane Austen, I’ll scream.

  9. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Blithe Spirit: You are right they are arranged alphabetically by author — the picture goes up to Nabokov, so you have some idea of how many volumes are around the corner. Good suggestion with the Modern Library (although I do rather like the author portraits on the spine — nothing quite like having five versions of Proust looking down at you). And our Virago collection is down in the basement since there just isn’t enough room up in the library.

    The young male that I was, I never read Austen until I started this project (shame on me, I know). That has now been rectified, with a number already read twice. I would say that Austen and Trollope (who I had also never read) are the biggest “gaping reading holes” that have been filled as a result of this project.

  10. Trevor Says:

    How was the Trollope, Kevin?

  11. KevinfromCanada Says:

    I really enjoyed the Barsetshire Chronicles — they had a most appropriate pace and I quite enjoyed the way Trollope developed both his characters and his story. He would not get my vote for greatest novelist of all time, but was well worth reading. I haven’t started the Palliser series yet but I intend to get to it in good time. EL says they are going to publish all of them but so far they have only produced Can You Forgive Her? and The Eustace Diamonds. Having waited 140 years to find him, I figure a delay of a few more years is okay.:-)

  12. Trevor Says:

    On a different note, but one we’ve talked about before, J.D. Salinger won in the U.S. I haven’t read the reasoning yet, but I’m interested since I can’t quite see how he did it.

  13. KevinfromCanada Says:

    I did see it Trevor. The Times story does leave me wondering what the judge was thinking.

  14. dovegreyreader Says:

    Kevin, perfect shelves and now I’m thinking should I unravel my Everyman’s from mixed general shelving and let them live side by side? I’m a ‘covers off’ girl myself, what lay beneath felt too sumptuous to hide and I love the creamy colour and texture of the paper too.
    I do have Phineas Finn in the EC edition for The Pallisers as well and the rest in Folio. A huge number of these were up for sale very cheaply here in the Millennium edition (indistinguishable from the others bar a few words on the cover) that gave a complete set of every EC to every school library in the UK (I think). Amazing how many schools obviously then sold them on eBay or Amazon Marketplace.

  15. dovegreyreader Says:

    sorry it’s late grocer’s apostrophe in there somewhere, apologies:-(

  16. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Thanks for the data on Phineas Finn — I can’t figure out why some titles like this one are available there and not here. I may just opt for quality paperbacks for the rest of the Palliser series in the short term.

    And they do look nice grouped together. I don’t have much of a problem remembering which ones are EL and which aren’t.

  17. Craig D. Says:

    I just want you to know that I’m jealous as hell of this bookshelf, and I fart in your and its general direction.

    My shelf gains an Everyman’s Library or Library of America edition now and then, which classes it up a bit, but I tend to go for cheap paperbacks when it’s something that’s in the public domain. Not that they don’t blend in perfectly with all the other cheap paperback crap with which they share shelf space.

  18. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Craig: Well, I did note at the start of the review that most of these Everyman’s Library editions replaced disintegrating paperbacks. So if you are collecting a volume or two occasionally now, think how many fewer you will have to buy later on if you decide on a similar project! :-)
    I can testify that they do last. Thanks for the comment.

  19. Lora Says:

    Hi there, I really wanted to buy a number of Everyman’s Library editions to replace my deteriorating paperbacks of the Bronte’s and Jane Austen’s novels. I loved that the paper is acid-free since I usually end up becoming allergic to books after they’ve begun to yellow and deteriorate. But I’ve run into a problem with the Everyman’s books and I’m wondering if you’ve experienced this: I’ve noticed that some volumes have a strong and unpleasant (at least to me) manufacturing type odor, perhaps from adhesive or the type of ink used (I’m not sure what it’s from).

    Recently, I bought Wuthering Heights, Anne of Green Gables and Jane Eyre. Wuthering Heights and Anne of Green Gables had no odor at all , but Jane Eyre had such a strong smell I had to return it. I bought another copy and it was the same, so I returned it too.

    Then I went to another bookstore and noticed the same thing with most, but not all, of the Jane Austen editions. I just recently saw a review on Amazon of their volumes of War and Peace that mentioned this smell. Have you noticed this? I’m wondering what it could be (and why some have it and some don’t) and if it will fade over time.

    I tried contacting Everyman’s Library twice about this, but despite the fact that their website says they are happy to answer questions about their books, they never responded. I’m afraid to buy them not knowing if the odor will ever fade.

    Thanks,
    Lora

  20. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Lora: I have not noticed any odor with any volume at all, so I am afraid I can’t help. If I had to guess, I’d think you were on the right track speculating that it is the ink.

  21. Jean Cotter Says:

    I too am a book sniffer. I mentioned this to a woman I met by chance at a dinner (Dickens Birthday) and she laughed and told me that she belonged to a group of books collectors called The Book Sniffers. Yes, we abound. Enjoy your reading and sniffing!

  22. CEP Says:

    Enjoyed your post for I am also a collector of the EL tomes. I just wanted to let you know that EL had issued Proust in four volumes. It’s available only in UK. ISBN 9781857152500

    As you probably know EL started in London and then Knopf introduced it to the New World. Today some books issued in UK are not issued in the US and vice versa.

    • KevinfromCanada Says:

      Thanks for bringing this back to light — my reading chair looks directly at my EL shelves and I am reminded daily of these favorites.

      When I was first putting my collection together, I was quite aware that some volumes were only available in the UK (and vice versa as you say — I’m presuming due to copyright issues). This was before the days of easy internet buying and on a couple trips to London that meant a special stop at Hatchards in Piccadilly, the only book store that I have come across that has a special EL section.

    • CEP Says:

      I’m new to your blog site and it is possible you had addressed this already. Still, do you have a list of all the books in your EL collection? Thanks.

    • KevinfromCanada Says:

      I have not addressed it before and I don’t have a list. I have about 120 volumes — obviously not anywhere near a complete collection. They are also all fiction, although even there I only buy books that I think I will eventually read. My estimate is that I have read 75-80 per cent of those that I have bought.

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