Roger Hudson on the history and charm of the Folio Society

Of Bembo, Caslon and Clairvaux

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The Folio Society was founded 65 years ago and has been gradually undergoing apotheosis into a National Treasure, to join Radio 4, the Proms, Alan Bennett and the London taxi. Like some hound of heaven, it is in unrelenting pursuit of quality, its books by the best authors old and new produced using the best methods old and new, and new illustrators too, striving to end up with the best that mind, hand and eye can do.

It is not surprising that members of Folio and subscribers to Slightly Foxed are quite often one and the same. Those for whom reading is an important part of life may well hanker after something more in the way of the book beautiful than an airport bookstall or the stickered stacks of three-for-two can offer. Not always, you understand: the motives of someone who only has Folio books on view might be suspect. Have they been bought as a short cut to cultivation, for display only? But for inveterate spine scanners who convince themselves that books are an indicator of character, it is always reassuring to spot some Folio titles mixed in on a person’s shelves, to know he or she has succumbed to their tactile and visual pleasures – the beautifully engineered slipcases, the proper cloth or buckram bindings, the paper that remains unfaded, the well-chosen typefaces, the attention to proportion and space. There is anticipatory pleasure reading the litany of specifications in each year’s catalogue: ‘Quarter-bound cloth with Modigliani paper sides’, ‘Bound in blocked buckram’, ‘Set in Bembo, in Adobe Caslon, in Palatino’, even ‘in Elysium with Clairvaux display’. It is like going to bed with an Elizabeth David cook book after dining off baked beans (four-volume boxed set, yours for £19.95 from Folio, as an introductory offer).

And then there are the pictures, and the designs on the bindings. Some people are snooty about illustrating grown-up fiction, vapouring on about how their imaginations will generate all the ima

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About the contributor

Roger Hudson compiled, selected or edited over a dozen books for Folio while also working for a number of other publishers, including his old firm, John Murray.

The Folio Society is at 44 Eagle Street, London WC1R 4SF, telephone 020 7400 4200. Its website is at www.foliosociety.com. The illustrations in this article have been substantially reduced in size from the originals.

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