The Pick of the Pocket Editions

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During the early 1970s I read most of Anthony Trollope’s novels. This was encouraged by my boss, Handasyde Buchanan, and by an American friend who read them at the same sort of pace and later assembled a wonderful collection of first editions. The novels provided us with infinite hours of pleasure and also introduced us to the perfect reading format for nineteenth-century novels, the World’s Classics, published by the Oxford University Press. The original World’s Classics were clearly printed on good-quality paper, bound ‘in superfine art cloth’, and they could be carried anywhere and everywhere in a pocket. They have also become my private litmus test for second-hand bookshops. If I find a couple of shelves, ideally including favourite titles like The Real Charlotte or The Nebuly Coat or Stanhope’s Conversations with Wellington, I can be fairly sure that the bookseller is a reader and that his stock is worth investigating. If I find obvious duds – the novels of Constance Holme, say, or odd volumes of English Critical Essays – that have probably languished on the same shelf for several years, or if there is no sign at all of the small dark-blue covers, I know I’m probably wasting my time.

For those like me who look out for, and sometimes even retain, useless knowledge, the first World’s Classic, published in 1901, was Jane Eyre; the last in the original pre-paperback series, published in 1973, was Crime and Punishment. The latter was No. 619, making the series many hundred volumes shorter than the original Everyman edition of classics, and many hundreds longer than the modern Everyman which started in 1992. If you had read even half of its remarkable range, you could consider yourself very widely read.

It was the publisher Grant Richards who instigated World’s Classics, and Oxford only took over after the first sixty-six titles had appeared and Richards had gone bust. The Everym

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About the contributor

John Saumarez Smith has been buying and selling old and new books at Heywood Hill for forty years.

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