Knopf Reissues 'Everyman's Library' of Classic Books

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

THE debate about a literary canon continues on college campuses. It spills over onto the Op-Ed pages of newspapers and magazines. It is all about which great works of Western literature are so important that they should be read by every student.Alfred A. Knopf Inc., in a venture the publishing industry considers of enormous cultural significance, plans to add some voices to this debate, specifically, 450 volumes of literary classics. One of the preeminent publishers in the United States, Knopf is reissuing at both its New York and London offices "Everyman's Library," the hardcover series of the world's classics. Copies from the first 22 titles to be released this month, including "Pride and Prejudice," "The Wealth of Nations," and "Huckleberry Finn," are to be given to British Prime Minister John Major at Spencer House Sept. 25. Originally published in 1905 by Joseph Malaby Dent, a respected London publisher, the Everyman series set out to reach "every kind of reader: the worker, the student, the cultured man, the child, the man and the woman." The title comes from lines addressed to Everyman, the allegorical character in the medieval morality play of the same name, by another character, Knowledge, as Everyman sets out on a journey: "Everyman, I will go with thee,/ and be thy guide,/ In thy most need to go by thy side." Dent envisioned a balanced collection of classics and other "worthy" books that would make "the most complete library for the common man the world has ever seen." By the end of 1910, 500 volumes had been issued, and within the publisher's lifetime, Everyman had become the most complete and recognized such collection in the English language. When the series went out of print in 1975, 994 works in 1,239 volumes had been produced with sales exceeding 60 million copies. Everyman's reissue stems from what we consider "both sound marketing and a serendipitous meeting of our editors reflecting on their own reading experiences," says Knopf president and editor-in-chief, Ajai Singh "Sonny" Mehta, at his Manhattan office. Mr. Mehta says baby boomers have reached that age at which they will be looking for what is "classic and enduring." As they reflect on what influenced their lives, as they move that reflection into considerations for what they hope will influence their children's lives, they will collect great works of literature which they perceive "as important, as seminal, as persistent," he says. Knopf drew on the advice of a distinguished board of advisors to help it choose which books to publish from the original series. Knopf also plans to add books that slipped through the Everyman "net," especially from the 20th century, in effect suggesting which books to add to the literary canon. Whatever judgment it makes, Knopf knows it faces one unchanging test: The books must sell. Knopf is banking on a Victorian trait - that baby-boomer individuals and families will want to acquire a sufficient number of these works to create their own library. "There are more and more people who are building libraries and they want the classics," says Margaret Maupin, buyer for The Tattered Cover bookstore in Denver, one of the largest independently owned bookstores in the US. "Our buyers for back-list fiction are ecstatic about Everyman's. It has an enormous range of books we can sell, even if not enormous quantities," she says. Knopf will print an additional 24 titles in November, to be followed by approximately 100 annually over the next four years. First production runs for each title will be 5,000 copies. Each book includes a new introduction, a comprehensive chronology of the author's life and times, and an annotated bibliography. "We wanted to publish them in a way that makes reading them a pleasure and makes just holding them a pleasurable experience," says Mehta. Prices will range between $15 and $20 per book. A determination is yet to be made on discounts for multiple purchases, says Jane Friedman, senior vice president for publishing at Knopf. One potential competitor is Penguin Books, since it puts out a number of the same classics in paperback.

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