Owning books every man should read
Some of my earliest and most treasured second-hand book acquisitions came from Greene's in Nassau Street and Webb's on the quays in Dublin and were published by JM Dent under its Everyman's Library imprint.
This was the brainchild of Darlington-born Joseph Malaby Dent who, despite receiving little by way of formal education himself (or perhaps because of that), resolved in 1906 that his firm would publish 1,000 classic works of literature at prices that ordinary people could afford -- an impressive total that was finally achieved in 1956, 30 years after Dent's death.
The bookshops where I discovered those old Everyman editions are sadly gone, while Dent itself was acquired by Weidenfeld & Nicolson in 1988. Happily, the Everyman's Library imprint, in conjunction with Random House, was relaunched in 1991 and is currently celebrating its 21st birthday.
Readers should join in the celebrations because these Everyman books of the past two decades are not just beautifully bound and printed but are notable for the editorial care that has been expended on them.
Among my favourites are The Best of Frank O'Connor (670 pages), selected and edited by Julian Barnes; the Essays of George Orwell (1,400 pages), introduced by John Carey; The Complete Novels of Flann O'Brien, edited by Keith Donohue; Patricia Highsmith's Ripley novels, introduced by Grey Gowrie; and the Complete Non-Fiction of Joan Didion, introduced by John Leonard and running to 1,100 pages.
Finest of all, though, is the Everyman edition of WB Yeats's Complete Poems, edited by Daniel Albright, whose extremely helpful explanatory notes to the poems run to 440 pages.
Unlike the similarly handsome Library of America editions, whose wafer-thin pages make them artifacts to admire rather than books to peruse, the Everyman editions provide a true service to readers, though their full impact would be lost in ebook format -- if only because, as a Times Literary Supplement columnist noted last week: "You cannot own an ebook. It has no aesthetic properties: no ornamentation, no weight, no smell; in short, no character. It does not furnish a room."