I 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.
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.