The Modern Library has played a significant role in American cultural life for the better part of a century. For decades, young Americans cut their intellectual teeth on Modern Library books. The series shaped their tastes, educated them, provided them with a window on the world. Many of the country’s celebrated writers are quick to attest that they “grew up with the Modern Library.”
The Modern Library was founded in 1917 by Boni and Liveright, one of the most important publishing houses of the early 1920s. It was their idea to provide American readers with inexpensive reprints of European modernist titles, plus the work of a few contemporary Americans. The series was a cash cow for the publishers, but by 1925 the rest of Horace Liveright’s business wasn’t doing well (he had bought out Albert Boni a few years earlier). Needing the money, Liveright sold the Modern Library to one of his employees, a twenty-seven-year-old vice-president who wanted to go into business for himself. The new publisher was Bennett Cerf.
Cerf and his friend Donald Klopfer set up the Modern Library, Inc., on August 1, 1925. They added more American writers to the series and some older classics, and two years later, finding that they had time to spare, they started Random House as a subsidiary of the Modern Library. Random House enabled them to publish, “at random,” other books that interested them. It soon was a major publishing force in its own right, and the Modern Library would become an imprint of its own offspring.
The Modern Library billed itself as “The Modern Library of the World’s Best Books,” and book buyers relied on it to provide them with just that. Titles were added to and taken out of the series according to their popularity or the availability of rights, jackets were tinkered with, and the colophon redesigned, but the essential purpose of the Modern Library has remained the same.
In 1992, on the occasion of the Modern Library’s seventy-fifth anniversary, Random House embarked on an ambitious project to refurbish the series, reviving the torchbearer emblem that Cerf and Klopfer commissioned in 1925 from Lucian Bernhard. The Promethean bearer of enlightenment (known informally around the old Modern Library offices as the “dame running away from Bennett Cerf”) was redesigned several times over the years, most notably by Rockwell Kent.
In 2000, Modern Library launched The Paperback Classics, a visionary program that continues to expand, featuring treasured classics, volumes of essential writings, major translations of great works from around the globe, and rediscoveries of keen literary and historical merit. These editions feature exciting new introductions by today’s leading writers and scholars, stunning translations by acclaimed translators, critical editions of the texts, scholarly endnotes, reading group guides, production values that emphasize superior quality and readability, and competitive prices.
The year 2000 also marked the launch of Modern Library Chronicles, a popular and lively series of original, small-format “short histories” featuring the world’s great historians on the world’s great subjects.
A Board of prominent thinkers advises us on selections, and is famous for the 100 Best polls for the best novels and nonfiction of the 20th century. We are grateful to our readers who are participating as never before in the workings of the Modern Library via this website, and responses to the Modern Library Newsletter.
Modern Library continues to provide the world’s best books.