The revitalized Modern Library: a relief from high-priced hardbacks

By , Bruce Allen reviews books regularly for the Monitor.

The Modern Library is back in the news with a major revitalization effort. Since the late 1970s, both the familiar series titles and new additions have begun appearing in ''redesigned and rejacketed'' format.

The series was begun in 1917. In 1925 Bennett Cerf and his partner, Donald Klopfer, took it over to offer the reading public attractive hard-cover editions of consensus literary classics and esteemed contemporary works at reasonable prices. Throughout the next six decades, the Modern Library has issued dozens of volumes showcasing the world's finest fiction, nonfiction, poetry, and drama - many of them omnibus productions like the mammoth anthology ''Great Tales of Terror and the Supernatural.''

Gone, of course, are the days when you could pick up a hardbound copy of ''The Works of Plato'' for 95 cents or a Modern Library giant like ''Complete Poetry of John Donne and William Blake'' for under $2.

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But you will find, among recent batches, ''modern classics'' like Isak Dinesen's beloved memoir ''Out of Africa,'' Alexander Solzhen-itsyn's disturbing ''Cancer Ward,'' and Jorge Luis Borges's ''Labyrinths.''

The current spring lineup, featuring women writers, includes what is probably Willa Cather's best novel, ''Death Comes for the Archbishop,'' plus a long-overdue, affordable hard-cover of George Eliot's masterpiece ''Middle-march ,'' along with the work of Mary Shelley, Kate Chopin, Elizabeth Bowen, and Marguerite Yourcenar.

Next fall will bring Byron's ''Don Juan,'' Stendhal's ''The Red and the Black ,'' and Anthony Trollope's ''The Way We Live Now,'' among other pleasures.

Prices range from $5.95 for the more slender volumes up to $12.95 for the ''Giants.'' The average is $8.95.

John Glusman, an editor at Vintage Books, which produces and distributes Modern Library titles, told me in a recent telephone interview that a major effort to revitalize and promote the series has been recently under way on the theory that the kind of reading value for which the Modern Library is known could be expected to appeal to both the literate younger audience and to older readers who remember when Modern Library books were the only hardcovers they could afford.

I can add personal testimony. When I was an English major at Boston University it was standard operating procedure to saunter down to the Book Clearing House, where the entire Modern Library roster jam-packed a tall bookcase, tucked under a stairwell. Just around the corner were the carefully displayed current titles - virtually all of them selling for atrocious prices - nearly $5 apiece.

You'd see student-types sprawled on the stairs pretending to browse but in reality unable to decide whether the carefully hoarded buck-and-a-quarter could be ''wasted'' on something like a Kafka or a Camus, or committed to serious library-building - an Aristotle, say.

Relief, of sorts, beckoned from above. A rickety elevator took you to a fourth floor occupied only by groaning shelves filled with secondhand books. These were priced so low you suspected the management meant to unload them just to keep several ceilings from collapsing, and burying the browsers below in a rubble of Rabelaises and Bullfinches and Faulkners.

I remember, in fact, finding used Modern Library books up in that atelier. I got ''Crime and Punishment'' for 15 cents; ''War and Peace'' for a quarter.

So I remain grateful to the Modern Library, as do many readers of my vintage. Collecting and devouring those books was a triumphantly heady experience: It let us know that we could become, not just cultural poor relations, scrounging for torn and tattered paperbacks, but actual, serious purchasers and collectors. We, too, could build libraries. We were part of the gross national product. That was enlightening!

Today's readers should be equally enthusiastic, considering that the newest Garfield cartoon paperback goes for upwards of $5, and each season's forgettable novels sell for $15 to $20 apiece. Most major bookstore chains now stock the new Modern Library volumes. The series' careful balance between reissued old favorites and recent books that look as if they'll have lasting appeal seems to assure that it will go on being what the New York Times called it a generation or two ago: ''the greatest book bargain in America today.''

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