On The Trail of
The Torch Bearer

by Catherine Petruccione

#62, 13 February 2006

An Interview with Henry Toledano

Printer Friendly Article

Henry Toledano did booksellers and collectors a big, big favor indeed when he wrote what's now accepted as the definitive Modern Library reference - The Modern Library Price Guide (latest edition is The Modern Library Price Guide, 1917-2000, 2nd Revised Edition, 1999). More than a price guide, it contains extensive information on all collectible focus areas of the Modern Library, photos and issue points of dust jackets and bindings - and even some good advice on book scouting and book repair. It is a resource that no serious Modern Library collector should be without. The first edition was published in 1993, a second in 1995, and the most recent appeared at the end of 1999.

Henry will soon be 75 years old - "I'll soon be collectible!" he said. Well, he's a rare one indeed. As I learned through our conversation and as you can see from the photos, Henry is one sharp and lively guy. He is also the author of Goreyography (San Francisco, 1996), a comprehensive Edward Gorey bibliography and price guide. He has been a bookseller (Books etc) for many years, and he currently resides in San Francisco, California.

BOOKTHINK: You mentioned that you came back from China a short time ago.

Yes, I went to China very recently. In our group was a gentleman who was 92 (I knew him because I played Bridge with him), and he did everything. What's more, he's been (in 2005) to Europe, Alaska, China, Canada, and in February, he's going round the cape of Patagonia, and 92 - fantastic. We had a great time.

BOOKTHINK: What were your impressions of China?

I loved it. I was really impressed. It's coming up so fast. The development is staggering. The roads are good - this is true of the east. I gather the west has enormous problems, but in the east the roads are excellent, the hotels were fabulous, the buildings and the construction were phenomenal. I don't think we (the U.S.) will be number one for many decades more. And, in my opinion, the price of oil will be going up. There's lots of smog. Things are really developing at an incredible pace.

BOOKTHINK: Tell me a little about your background. I know from some reading I've done that you've lived in England. I'm thinking you've had a pretty interesting life.

I was born in Egypt. I went to school in England, and before coming to the states I lived for ten years in the Bahamas. I started collecting Modern Library purely by accident. When I was living in England I frequently visited Paris, and it was there that I bought my first Modern Library. The series was not obtainable in England for copyright reasons, though a few Modern Library titles have been published in the UK. I liked the look of the books, and they were cheap. What's more, I bought them to read, and I read them all. Before starting to collect in earnest many years later, I had 70 or 80 regular editions - all bought in Paris, or maybe a few were purchased in Switzerland.

The Modern Library selection was really excellent, and most of the titles are still valid now. I'd say 95% were classics and still readable today. I repeat - a phenomenal selection.

BOOKTHINK: I've always wondered how they selected their titles for publication.

There's a book called The World's Best Books: Taste, Culture and the Modern Library. It was written by Jay Satterfield and put out by University of Massachusetts Press-Amherst/Boston. It's a very interesting book. It doesn't deal with the collecting aspect, but it does cover what you just asked - how they selected the titles and what they did to get them distributed to various booksellers.

(MEDIA EDITOR'S NOTE: As I mentioned in Part I of this article, this book is a fascinating read about the development and marketing of the Modern Library. Titles were chosen to appeal to "modern" intellectuals, including college students, middle management America and the Bohemian culture of Greenwich Village. The aim was to publish books that would have more lasting cultural value than the typical Book-of-the-Month Club selections or the popular "set editions" of the early 20th-century bourgeois.)

BOOKTHINK: What do you like most about collecting Modern Library?

I like the search, the hunt ... and of course if you can get something at a good price, better still. When I first started, I noticed that booksellers charged about the same price for all Modern Library books, which of course was nonsense, as some are very easy to find and others almost impossible. That, I suppose, was the seed for starting the bibliography.

Ten years ago, you went to pretty well any store, even a paperback one, and usually saw a few Modern Library on the shelves. Most were priced at about $4, a standard price at the time. If you were lucky you perhaps found one for $3. That was incredible. You could start a collection, your first 50 to 70 books (as I did in Paris) without any difficulty. Now, of course, that's changed; you go into a bookstore, and you may not see a single Modern Library with a decent jacket.

BOOKTHINK: You must have a really great collection of Modern Library editions.

I've got probably the finest collection in terms of condition but not necessarily the largest.

BOOKTHINK: Do you have a particular focus area?

I collect everything. Anything to do with Modern Library - publicity pieces, Modern Library logos, pirated editions, Modern Library bound in binding classes, errors, you name it.

BOOKTHINK: Is there a favorite book you have obtained that has a good story behind it?

I did get Alice in Wonderland, the illustrated edition, which I obtained purely by luck. But I actually sold it because somebody offered me an absurd price. I said, ok, if you want to pay that, it's fine by me. It was a very high price, I thought. It was, however, an exceptionally fine copy. Most people in the Bay area know I collect Modern Library, and a fellow bookseller phoned me and said he'd bought a whole collection of Modern Libraries from a Random House representative. He said he'd give me any of the books I wanted at 30% off my indicated price in the Guide. Fortunately for me he only had the first Guide (where the prices were slightly lower) and with Alice in Wonderland omitted altogether, simply because, at the time, I didn't know of its existence. So he actually priced it far too low.

BOOKTHINK: What inspired you to take on writing The Modern Library Price Guide?

My divorce. I wanted something to take my mind off my problems. And I also wanted to learn how to use a computer, and I felt there was no better way to learn something than to give myself a task. Plus, I liked the search, as I mentioned before. I used to carry a small tape recorder around with me, and if I found a book that was too expensive to buy, and I knew I didn't have it, I would just record the information I needed and make notes when I got home.

The initial guide said nothing about first state dust jackets. In the subsequent ones, I do make the distinction, because it became clear that many wanted First Modern Library editions with the correct first state dust jacket. I thought it ridiculous that they would pay four or five times the more to get a first Modern Library edition as opposed to just the regular edition. But if that's what they wanted, so be it.

But then I find quite a lot of things absurd. A couple of years ago I went to an auction where there were two lots of Steinbeck's Grapes of Wrath - a very good copy in a very good dust jacket, and the second identical in terms of condition except that its dust jacket was covered with a browned, torn, creased original tissue. The first book sold for $1,800 and the second for $2,800 plus, of course, the 15% buyer's premium. A lousy tissue for a $1,000 more! That's not my style.

BOOKTHINK: Your guide is a tremendous aid in the often difficult task of identifying Modern Library first editions.

In the earlier Modern Library there are some ambiguities, but I devised a method whereby you could tell the first from the catalog number at the beginning of the book. In the later editions (post 1925) the edition is usually marked. For those where it was not I used the number printed on the dust jacket, which showed how many Modern Library were in print when a particular book was published. This is not fool-proof, but adequate and helpful when scouting.

Enter Book Title or ISBN

Powered by FetchBook.Info
New & Used Books