Classic Classics: They Don’t Make ‘Em Like They Used To

As a result of my ongoing research into three popular hardcover classics series, I have discovered that the modern incarnations of these series pale in comparison to their forbears, at least in terms of breadth. Here are the stats:

Oxford World’s Classics
Original series: 1901–1978, about 620 titles, plus six minor spinoff series.
Current series: 1999–ongoing (?), 23 titles as of 2002.
Official website. Collectors’ webpage.

Everyman’s Library
Original series: 1906–1975, 994 or 1,081 titles (opinions vary; the original goal was 1,000).
Current series: 1991–ongoing, 337 titles in print, plus three minor spinoff series.
Official website. Collectors’ webpage.

Modern Library
Original series: 1917–1970, about 600 or 750 titles (opinions vary), plus three spinoff series.
Brief revival 1977–1985, 21 titles.
Current series: 1992–ongoing, 132 titles in print, by my count.
Official website. Collectors’ website.

It figures that my favourites in terms of readability, the new Oxford World’s Classics and Modern Library, have the poorest catalogues. (Neither has all the Jane Austen books in hardcover. Horrors!) They don’t come close to Everyman’s Library’s offerings, either past or present. The three series also differ in their emphasis (at least originally), with Oxford including non-Western works, the Modern Library focusing more on (you guessed it) modern works, and Everyman’s sticking to the classics. It would be interesting to compare their catalogues to Adler’s great books list of about 500 works. Another interesting comparison would be with Penguin Classics’ 1,082 paperback titles in print (a number that is suspiciously close to the original Everyman’s catalogue—coincidence?). But the most relevant comparison for me would be the quality and readability of the older series. Of course this is complicated by the fact that there are multiple editions of many titles (including no less than four editions of Jane Eyre in the Oxford World’s Classics alone), but I want at least a taste of what the older series have to offer. I already have a 1924 (alas not the 1901) Oxford World’s Classics Jane Eyre en route, but have yet to track down the others. I had no idea this project would turn out to be quite so involved, but that always seems to be the way with “little” projects. Stay tuned.

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2 comments on “Classic Classics: They Don’t Make ‘Em Like They Used To

  1. tony says:

    Actually the Oxford World's Classics has over 700 titles, according to their website. But they are mostly in paperback, not like the earlier series. Personally I prefer hardback, but when I found M.R.James' ghost stories in a hardback edition (published by the US branch of OUP) it included the text, but none of the notes. Which was annoying, since it still had the asterisks in the text, where notes should have been.

  2. Sylvia says:

    Actually that “700 titles” figure refers only to their paperbacks. Although their recent “Centenary” classics hardcover series is said to be ongoing it appears to have stopped in 2002 and only four volumes are currently available, and only from Oxford US. Of course this probably makes them highly collectible so hang on to your #21!
    Your M.R. James was the third-to-last published in the Centenary series, so maybe things were falling apart by that time. It appears that the first 18 volumes in the series were published in the UK in 1999 and then shifted to the US in 2001 for the last 5 before they stopped entirely. Obviously there was a change of plan, probably due to the wonders of modern business administration (or good old lack of sales).
    And if you ever find a 1999 Pride and Prejudice, grab it for me!

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