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The World's Classics

Grant Richards was a Scottish publisher in London when he came up with the idea for a series of pocket hardbacks. The World's Classics were launched in 1901. Sadly his business sense did not match his publishing genius and he went bankrupt in 1905. Henry Frowde, of Oxford University Press, spotted a good thing and snapped up the series.

Compared with the rival Everyman's Library, the books were smaller in size, printed on better paper and typographically superior. There was a lot of experimentation in the early years with different binding materials. Yapp-edged parchment, moroccoette, quarter vellum, buckram and, a personal favourite, cloth imitating tree calf.

By about 1907, smooth green cloth had become the standard binding, with 'Sultan-red' limp leather as the preferred gift version; but the more familiar navy cloth had been introduced as early as 1913. Post WWII, the cloth became coarser but illustrated jackets brought their own charm to the series. Lynton Lamb dominates by the number of his dust-wrapper designs but other artists include Edward Bawden, Mervyn Peake, John Lawrence, David Knight, Edward Ardizzone, Ronald Searle,Dodie Masterman, Diana Bloomfield, Leonard Rosoman, Susan Einzig, William Stobbs and Charles Mozley.

Few would now defend Aylwin by Theodore Watts-Dunton or any of the fiction by Constance Holme being included in a series calling itself 'The World's Classics', but these examples are few and far between and the nearly complete works of Tolstoy and Trollope, the wide range of short story selections from around the world, and the comprehensive collections of essays, plays, poetry, letters, autobiographies, philosophy and politics demonstrate the ambition of these compact volumes.

The World's Classics have been part of my life as a bookseller since Sabrina Izzard at Hall's Bookshop gave me the India paper single volume edition of War & Peace to take on holiday to Corsica. They are truly pocket editions, with good clear print and a collection can occupy very little space but contain many, many happy hours of reading from around the globe.

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