On this day in 1904, after several years of experience publishing quality books at popular prices, Joseph Malaby Dent (1849-1926) began to flesh out an ambitious vision for a series of reprints he would call the Everyman’s Library. It was to be a massive and diverse selection of one thousand classics--practically the whole canon of Western Civilization’s great books--sold at affordable prices.
Though the experts had decreed that the classics were dry, uninspiring, and hardly suited for the fast-paced industrial world of the twentieth century, Dent believed that properly presented, the great books would prove to be as appealing as ever. He was convinced this was due to the fact that while the classics exhibit distinguished style, fine artistry, and keen intellect, they also create a whole universe of imagination and thought. In addition, unlike the simplistic nursery tales manifest in the literature of modernity, he believed the classics portrayed life as complex and multifaceted, depicting both negative and positive aspects of human character in the process of discovering and testing enduring virtues. He also believed that the classics had an inevitable transforming effect on the reader’s self-understanding--stretching, shaping, and confronting him.
He thought they invited and rewarded frequent rereadings--they were ever new. They had the uncanny ability to adapt themselves to various times and places and thus provided a sense of the shared life of humanity over the course of space and time. And finally, he held that their mere endurance across all the varied times and seasons of human experience demonstrated an interminable permanence amidst modern temporality that was simultaneously comforting and challenging.
Though the venture was obviously a commercial risk, Dent was confident that the very thing that made the classics classic would ensure success for the series. He was right. Public demand for books in Everyman's Library exceeded every expectation. Production began in 1906 and more than a hundred and fifty titles were issued by the end of that first year.
Wartime inflation and shortages of supplies more than doubled the price of each volume during the First World War. After the conflict, inflation and shortages actually worsened. Dent responded to the setbacks by expanding book sales to international markets. He expanded distribution to North America by setting up a Canadian subsidiary and by allowing E. P. Dutton to distribute Everyman titles throughout the United States. In addition, Dent hired agents to sell Everyman titles in Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, and most of continental Europe.
The Everyman’s Library finally reached the millennial volume with the publication of Aristotle’s Metaphysics in 1956. In just fifty years total sales of the Everyman’s series had exceeded sixty million copies of the classics. Though his company was finally sold by his heirs in 1988, almost exactly a century after he founded it, the impact of the little publisher that dared stand against the tide of the modern conventions of uniformity, conformity, and efficiency is still felt.
I love the Everyman’s Library volumes--especially the small, pocket-sized, older editions. I find them in antiquarian bookshops at very reasonable prices. Beautiful, inexpensive hardbacks in a clean typeface and crisp acid-free papers: what more could an inveterate reader want? I have two whole bookcases of them. Indeed, I often tell students that these are the best and most immediate way to begin building a substantial library of great books.
Joseph Dent’s literary habits reintroduced the pertinence, puissance, and propriety of the classics to a world all too desperate for permanent things.