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Modern Library

Modern Library

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.