I spent some of my time in Pittsburgh this weekend continuing my pokey voyage through Italo Svevo’s The Confessions of Zeno. which I’ve been reading slowly for a while now. It’s reminiscent of a more poignant and less slapstick Confederacy of Dunces, both comic tales of men who can’t tell what a joke their lives have become. It’s not what I expected from the best-known Italian modernist, but I’m enjoying it. I doubt I’d have heard of it if it hadn’t been recently been reprinted, and I might not have picked it up if it the reprent hadn’t been an attractive and relatively inexpensive Everyman’s Library edition. The Everyman’s Library was revived in 1991 and is now published under the auspices of Random House’s Knopf imprint (as such, Everyman’s Library editions are Borzoi Books), but the project was conceived in 1905 by Joseph Malaby Dent of J.M. Dent & Co., a British publishing house specializing in inexpensive books for the working class. The Library was to contain a thousand affordable volumes (they were priced at a shilling each), comprising "the most complete library for the common man the world has ever seen"; the project was initially huge commercial success, but then tapered off; five hundred volumes had been publised by 1910, but it was not until 1956 that Aristotle’s Metaphysics finally marked the thousandth volume of the series that began fifty-one years earlier with Boswell’s Life of Johnson.
Boswell’s Johnson was inspired choice, because Johnson’s Lives of the English Poets was perhaps the first English-language anthology marketed as representing great works. English publishers had been issuing anthologies since 1557, when Richard Tottel published Songs and sonnets written by the right honorable Lord Henry Howard, late Earl of Surrey, and others (better known as Tottel’s Miscellany), the first published anthology of English verse. The form was quite popular during the English Renaissance, but the eighteenth-century coalition of booksellers who owned copyright on the various poets who were anthologized hit upon a novel technique for increasing sales: they would market their Lives as both prestigious and intellectually important by attatching the name of the most prominent English man of letters. Johnson himself selected only a handful of the works, but his attention made the books commercially viable (two hundred years later, the introductions he wrote also make excellent reading). Johnson, in the service of commerce, had invented the English canon.
Since no royalties needed to be paid on the copyright-free classics, the publishers made more on each book; the end of the nineteenth century and the beginning of the twentieth saw a minor blossoming of these collections of great literature well before the arrival of serious paperbacks in the form of Penguin and Pocket Books. Joseph Dent’s "Temple" edition of Shakespeare arrived in 1894; the Oxford World Classics in 1901; the Loeb Classical Library in 1911. In 1917, the Modern Library began publishing in 1917; initially intended to provide inexpensive but attractive (and, as Girlhacker notes, collectible) editions of contemporary European works, Bennett Cerf took over in 1925 and began publishing more classics.
And then there was Harvard president Charles Eliot’s "five-foot shelf" of Harvard Classics, fifty volumes of non-fiction, folklore, and poetry and twenty of fiction selected to encompass the entire basics of the Western canon, at least that recognized by Charles Eliot. Had Eliot included enough contemporary writers? Was a reliance on classics over modernists a sign of intellectual laziness? Could Eliot’s five-foot shelf (plus a twenty-volume shelflet) provide a well-rounded education by itself? Inspired by Columbia University’s John Erskine, the "Great Books", held that the best way of instilling a liberal education was through intensive reading of and interaction with selected fundamental works of the Western canon. The program flourished at the University of Chicago under Robert Hutchins, Chicago’s president, and Mortimer Adler, a professor and the author of How to Read a Book. The Great Books practitioners were attempting to codify what it meant to have a liberal education and, by extension, what an educated man of the early twentieth century could be expected to know. The Great Books program was designed to provide undergraduates at Chicago (and elsewhere; although today, the Great Books methodology is most prominent at St. John’s College, where it is strictly followed, many other schools draw inspiration from it) with a common framework of knowledge.
The Great Books movement peaked in the fifties, but the questions of what is "great" and what is not, how greatness is to be defined and who gets to define it, are not the sort of things that get authoritatively settled. Whether you’re T.S. Eliot or Charles Eliot, Harold Bloom or an anonymous panel of writers with an ill-defined mandate, your answers aren’t going to be the same as mine (and happily so). I’m enjoying The Confessions of Zeno very much, but it seems fairly clear that the book wouldn’t have the reputation it does if it weren’t for Svevo’s friendship with James Joyce. In the Everyman’s Library, Patricia Highsmith shares space with Christina Stead, and for decades neither was taken seriously by the literary establishment of their home countries. Dashiell Hammett is in, but Sherwood Anderson is out. Who makes the decisions? What makes a book great? In 1952, Mortimer Adler decided to answer this question the same way others had: by starting a line of classic literature reprints, the "Great Books of the Western World". In 1990, the catalog was updated and Candide was dropped. In 2028, I’m sure the next revision will be just as startling; in 2100, I’m sure that the "best books of the century" list will provoke furious debate; in the twenty-second century, perhaps the Everyman’s Library will still exist, filled with authors millenia dead and authors not yet born, each volume still offering the library’s promise: "Everyman, / I will go with thee, / and be thy guide, / In thy most need / to go by thy side."