Bibliographical Society

Note from Gordon B. Neavill on the Debut of the Modern Library Bibliography

In response to a November, 2022 email from David Vander Meulen, I sent a note to friends and family to let them know about the upcoming publication of the Modern Library bibliography.  Among the responses to my announcement was an email from a good friend who dates back to my undergraduate days at Oberlin College:

            Congrats. Only 50 years from start to publication.

This is only a slight exaggeration. As I note in the preface to the bibliography, the origins of this work go back to the fall of 1976 when I learned about the Random House archives at Columbia University. Terry Belanger, then at Columbia University’s School of Library Service, encouraged me to consider this as a dissertation topic.  It was toward the end of the fourteen months I spent in the Columbia University archives that I decided to compile a bibliography in addition to writing a history of the series. The current bibliography is a combination of the two projects.  It provides a detailed bibliographical description of all titles that initially came into the Modern Library for the 25 years Bennet Cerf was at the helm of Random House.  It follows each title through multiple printing variants. The bibliography also includes publishing history notes based on my research in the Random House archives.   

The extension of the bibliography to include publishing history notes created a massive work that prohibited publication for many years. I am grateful to David Vander Meulen and the Council of the Bibliographical Society of Virginia for recognizing the importance of this work and their continued support through the many years I worked on this project. 

The technology supporting this work and the people behind this technology created a format for the bibliography that is amazing to me.  I began the bibliography on a standard college level typewriter, still housed in the attic of our third floor. I eventually transferred the bibliographical descriptions and publishers’ notes to several generations of home and office computers.  I have often reflected that the sophisticated electronic publishing techniques used for the bibliography provide the best possible access to the content. The content is available without cost to a wide audience and provides seamless links between information, including images. Published earlier, this would not have been possible. 

Writing these notes for David to read to you led me to reflect on why I think descriptive bibliography is important. Books are one of the largest and most important classes of available artifacts of human culture, representing the milieu in which they emerge. Descriptive bibliography helps us to understand how books were made, what they looked like, and how they evolved over time. In this, descriptive bibliographies make an important contribution to our understanding of the historical record of human culture.    

I believe the Modern Library and other prominent reprint series are of special importance because they generally disseminate books to their largest audiences.  Through this, reprint publishers and their audiences have contributed to shaping the literary canon, determining what is read not only at a specific time but also in the future.

The Modern Library has been a focus throughout my academic career and a lifelong passion. The knowledge I gained and shared over the years I have worked on the project has been personally and intellectually rewarding. Numerous publications and presentations have come from this project. Those whom I have come to know through this work have enriched my life.  The publication of the bibliography brings my many years of work on the project to a rewarding and satisfying closure.     

I would like to take this opportunity to express my gratitude to David Vander Meulen and the Council of the Bibliographical Society of Virginia for their ongoing support for the project. David’s patience and encouragement have been extraordinary. Major contributions to the consistency and coherency of the bibliography were made by Anne Ribble and Elizabeth Lynch.  Their ability to identify errors and inconsistencies and find better ways to express ideas led to significant improvements in the text. I also gratefully acknowledge the digital staff of the University of Virginia Library for their work on the project.

I hope the bibliography reaches many and has a definite, positive impact on learning and understanding.