On The Trail of
The Torch Bearer

by Catherine Petruccione

#60, 19 January 2006

An Interview with Scot Kamins

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Over the past year, I've been delighted to have the opportunity to interview a number of interesting, dynamic individuals for articles here at BookThink. For the following article (presented in two parts) I was especially fortunate to be able to connect with not just one but two such people, both experts in the field of Modern Library book collecting - Mr. Henry Toledano, author of the "bible" for collectors of Modern Library (The Modern Library Price Guide 1917-2000); and Scot Kamins, developer and host of an outstanding website on this genre at ModernLib.com.

The establishment of the Modern Library early in the 20th century created a huge cultural impact: It successfully brought important literature to the masses in a way that appealed to both the critics and the common man. To understand why these books have such staying power and why they are collectible today, I highly recommend reading The World's Best Books: Taste, Culture, and the Modern Library by Jay Satterfield (University of Massachusetts Press, Amherst/Boston, 2002). My thanks goes out to Henry Toledano for calling this book to my attention.

If you have ever longed to assemble a collection of the world's greatest literature in a form that will look neatly impressive in your bookcases, won't break the bank or call for construction of a new wing on the house, you are a potential ML addict. Although many of the more common titles are still readily available, there are enough scarce editions of these little buggers to make collecting them a life-long challenge, and some of them can be worth quite a lot of money. Since 1917, the best of literature has been bound into these compact books; not only the great novels, but history, philosophy, biography and more. Great reading, great collecting, and here's the best part: The majority of them are affordable.

Here are two "musts" if you are interested in learning about this book collecting genre:

First, obtain a copy of The Modern Library Price Guide 1917-2000 by Henry Toledano for study and reference. The book can be purchased directly from Toledano by contacting him at BooksetcSF@aol.com or by visiting his on-line store Books etc on Abebooks or Alibris. Second, bookmark Scot Kamins' comprehensive website for collectors of Modern Library editions (link appears above). There is a wealth of valuable information here, useful both for beginning and advanced collectors, presented in a clear and entertaining format. You may get hooked, as I did, and register at his site to access even more detailed information.

I hope you will find the following interview with Scot Kamins as delightfully refreshing as I did. It wasn't easy to find unique questions to put to Scot - his website covers so many aspects of Modern Library, and he has been interviewed before - and yet he managed to present us with new information in his own inimitable style.

BOOKTHINK: Scot, how and when did you get started in Modern Library book collecting?

Well, that's a pretty interesting story. It was in November of 1993. I was looking for a copy of William James's Varieties of Religious Experience for some research I was doing on the history of 12-step movements. Anyway, I was looking in a Crown Books store in San Francisco on Castro Street near where I lived at the time. They wanted $13.95 for a paperback copy, and I wasn't interested in paying that much. So I decided to look up the street at a used bookstore I had often walked past.

You have to understand that up to this time I had rejected the concept of buying used books, not wanting who-knows-whose eye tracks cootieing up my books. But I just wanted the James for this quick-and-dirty research project, so I decided to break tradition.

So I walked into the bookstore and asked the guy behind the counter - this older British guy - if he had any copies. The bookstore was Books etc, and the British guy was Henry Toledano, one of the greatest authorities on Modern Library, but I didn't know that at the time. Anyway, he pointed to a wall opposite his checkout desk. The wall was his Modern Library section with several hundred books in it.

I found a copy of the book I was looking for. The price printed on the front flap was $1.65, but written in light pencil on the half-title page was $7.95. Well, I thought that was something of a rip-off - eight bucks for a used copy of a book that was $1.65 when it was new. (As I said, I never bought used books.) But I liked the feel of the book and the way it was made and the size of the type and the books size and, well, it was just a nice book!

I handed the book to the British guy. "These are becoming quite collectable, you know." No, I didn't know, I said, but I could see how collecting them would make a nice hobby. "I think so," he said, smiling for the first time. "I've written a little book about them," and he pointed down to the small pile of privately printed paperbacks in front of the cash register. "The Modern Library Price Guide By Henry Toledano" graced the cover. I bought the James but passed on the Guide. A week later I bought the guide and spent an additional $75 in Henry Toledano's store on nine more Modern Library books. And the die, as they say, was cast.

BOOKTHINK: What do you find personally most appealing about collecting Modern Library?

The ability to build a comprehensive library in really well-made and attractive books with some really pretty dust jackets without paying a lot of money. I know, that's cheating - you said "most appealing" probably looking for a single element, but what makes collecting Modern Library editions so appealing is the package. I mean, these are terrific books that are so inexpensive - well, mostly - that you get to read what you collect. (I'm a huge advocate of that, by the way; I'm not one for spending dough on stuff I just stick on a shelf and be afraid to touch for fear of making its value drop precipitously.)

Not that all Modern Libraries are cheap; some will set you back many hundreds of dollars. But those comprise a small percentage of the whole, and almost exclusively apply to Modern Library firsts in first dust jackets in really great condition.

I also like the fact that up through 1970 the books were numbered. There's something very appealing to my obsessive-compulsive side about seeing all those books lined up by number.

BOOKTHINK: Can you share a few examples of different focus areas for Modern Library collectors?

Well, that's one of the attractions of Modern Library collecting. There are so many ways to collect! Over the years Modern Library editions came in a variety of bindings and dust jacket styles, with around 850 titles and 450 authors. So this is going to be a long answer:

One, every title with or without a dust jacket - that is, collecting one of each title in the Modern Library even without dust jackets and without consideration to new editions, fresh translations, or added or changed introductions would be a fine challenge. This would be the least expensive way to go.

Two, by the year. From time to time a book was dropped from the series and the number reassigned to a new book, or numbers were shuffled around for one reason or another. For example, the number 16 was assigned to four different titles over the years: Moore's Confessions of a Young Man (1917), Hart's War in Outline (1939), Hersey's Bell For Adano (1946) and James' The Bostonians (1966). So you can restrict your "by the numbers" collecting to the titles available in a given year. In you chose 1968, your number 16 would have to be the Henry James title. If you chose 1937, you'd have to have the scarcer Hart title, but then again, you'd have fewer titles to collect since only 260 titles existed that year, as opposed to about 450 titles (including giants) in 1968.

Three, just Buckrams. Buckram editions were created in the late 1920s (briefly) and then more successfully throughout the 1960's for libraries and other situations where large numbers of people were expected to handle them. They are much more sturdy than the standard Modern Library books and were the only Modern Libraries issued without either a dust jacket, acetate covering, or cardboard case. The buckrams of the 60s have a pebbly finish with an impressed label at the base of the spine saying "BUCKRAM REINFORCED" in gold ink followed by the title number. There are 376 known numbered buckram titles in the regular series and 71 in the giants, and they look great on the shelf. My current collecting interest is in assembling a complete set of these puppies without library markings - a tough task!

Four, just giants. Modern Library created the giant editions so it could publish titles with too many pages to fit in the standard binding. Giants typically have over 1,000 pages and stand 8 1/4" tall by 5 1/2" wide with colored tops (until 1963) and cloth coverings. Starting with Tolstoy's War and Peace in 1931, there are about 135 collectable numbered issues.

Five, by a particular binding style. The Modern Library used 15 distinct bindings between 1917 and 1970 for its standard issue books (not to mention two for standard buckram issues, one for the illustrated series (two if you include an extra type for those that came in slipcases), seven for the giant issues plus one for the very scarce giant buckrams, and a couple more for special gift editions for a total of nearly 30 binding types). Several were used for just a few months, a couple for about a year, one was used for about eight years while another was used for nearly 24 years. There's no catalog that lists which titles were printed in the shorter-lived bindings, making collecting in those areas especially challenging; you won't know if you're done. Hey - I think I just came up with the next project!

Six, by dust jacket type. Modern Libraries came in three major dust jacket types and a variety of minor types. The longer-lived titles had all three major types, and some had additional variations. Dostoyevsky's The Brothers Karamazov had at least 10 (one text-only, six pictorials, and three illustrateds). Combining dust jacket types with binding types, you could limit your collecting to just the pictorial jackets in the type 7 standard bindings - a particularly alluring challenge because the pictorials of that period (1931 to 1939) were especially beautiful.

Seven, only first printings with matching dust jackets. This is the toughest and most expensive area to collect, and it's not for the faint of heart. Even if you have lots of money to spend on first printings, whether you'll ever successfully complete your collection is problematic. This is because no examples of firsts of some of the titles in dust jackets are known to exist. Finding decent quality dust jackets for any printings before 1925 is extremely difficult, first edition or not. The dust jackets of that era were made of the most ephemeral of papers, and almost all of them have crumbled to dust. (There's a philosophical Truth in there somewhere.)

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