Modern Library Paperbacks

Publisher: Random House

People: Jess M. Stein

Years: 1955-1960

Related Series: Modern Library College Editions, Vintage Books, Vintage Russian Library

The Modern Library began as a series of affordable pocket-sized leatherette books in 1917 published by Boni & Liveright. Bennett Cerf became the Vice President of Boni & Liveright in 1923 and purchased The Modern Library catalog from the firm in 1925 with his business partner Donald S. Klopfer. Two years later, the pair founded Random House, and the Modern Library imprint played a big role in the early success of the new publishing house.

Random House entered the quality paperback market in 1955, two years after Doubleday had introduced its Anchor Books imprint, the first such paperback series. Cerf and Klopfer had unsuccessfully ventured to become the American publisher of Penguin Books, but negotiations with Penguin founder Allen Lane broke down. Instead, the pair drew from the Modern Library back catalog and released 10 previously released Modern Library books in paperback format in spring 1955.

The Modern Library paperbacks had sewn binding and originally retailed for $0.95. The paperback editions were given series numbers with a "P" prefix (for "paperback," obviously). SIZE. Beginning with the spring 1956 catalog, the Modern Library paperbacks were perfect bound with a few exceptions. Prices stayed steady at $.95 for most releases. but later releases have prices of $1.25, $1.45, and $1.95.

Most titles published in the Modern Library paperback series were drawn from Random House's back catalog, but P22, William Styron's The Long March, was a first printing of the title in any edition, making it the most valuable Modern Library Paperback. Although Cerf & Klopfer missed their opportunity to acquire the rights to publish American Penguin paperbacks, in April 1960* the pair successfully purchased Alfred A. Knopf, bringing the house under the Random House umbrella. With the acquisition of Knopf's back catalog, Random House decided to end the Modern Library paperback series and instead continue Knopf's Vintage quality paperback imprint.

The details of this transition are slightly opaque, but sufficient deductive reasoning allows one to piece together how the acquisition of Knopf changed the Vintage imprint. These changes are detailed on the Vintage page, but here it's sufficient to note that many Modern Library paperback titles were reprinted in 1960 as Vintage paperbacks. These titles were given V-series numbers mostly ranging from V-124 to V-173. One Modern Library Paperback (P6b -- The Sound and the Fury) was assigned V-5 in place of K-5A & K-5B (two volumes of de Tocqueville), which were reassigned to V-110 & V-111. Two others (P28 & P32) were given V-series numbers previously assigned to titles not carried over to the V-Series: V-18 & V-49.

The last Modern Library paperback titles were published in spring 1960, with releases from P60 to P69 being solicited. Titles P61 and P69 were solicited as Modern Library paperbacks but published instead in the nascent Vintage Russian Library (assigned V-711 & V-718, respectively). Additionally, John Reed's Ten Days That Shook the World was solicited as an unnumbered Modern Library paperback title but was also instead published as part of the Vintage Russian Library (V-719).


  • Random House Launches Modern Library Paperbacks, 167 PW 1204 (Feb. 19, 1955)


  • The House of Boni & Liveright, 1917-1933: A Documentary Volume, Vol. 288 in The Dictionary of Literary Biography (2004) -- available through Woodruff databases

  • Gordon B. Neavill, The Illustrated Modern Library Series, 20 PRINTING HISTORY 29 (2016), available at

  • Gordon Neavill, “Canonicity, Reprint Publishing, and Copyright,” in The Culture of the Publisher’s Series, Vol. 2, Authors, Publishers and the Shaping of Taste, ed. John Spiers (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2011), 88–105

Vintage Books Absorbing Modern Library Paperbacks, PW, July 18, 1960, at 46 (explaining the new combined series will use V-numbers and specifying the change will start with new five Vintage Books published in September and six Vintage Russian Library and nine Modern Library Paperbacks titled issued in August and September).

Additional Notes:

    • P6 originally included Faulkner's The Sound and the Fury & As I Lay Dying when published in spring 1955. In spring 1959, P6 dropped As I Lay Dying and was reprinted with new cover art. These printings are differentiated as P6a & P6b.

    • P10 was originally titled Gulliver's Travels, A Tale of a Tub, The Battle of the Books in spring 1955 with an introduction by Robert B. Heilman. In spring 1959, P10 was republished under the title Gulliver's Travels and Other Writings with an introduction by Ricardo Quintana. Differentiated as P10a & P10b.

    • P14 & P35, Truman Capote's Other Voices, Other Rooms & The Muses Are Head: An Account were unique for having a photo of the author on their back covers instead of the usual listing of Modern Library paperback titles. Additionally, the first printing of P14 was sewn and subsequent printings were perfect bound.

    • P52, Pablo Picasso's A Suite of 180 Drawings received two distinct printings. The first printing was slightly larger than most other Modern Library paperbacks at 7.25" x 5.375" and had nice papers in a sewn binding. The second printing measured 7.25" x 4.375", the standard Modern Library paperback size, and had inferior papers perfect bound together. The text of the second printing was reset to fit the smaller size.

    • As visible in the spreadsheet below, some titles had variations in covers, mostly color changes, between original and later printings.

* Margaret Becket, Random House, in AMERICAN LITERARY PUBLISHING HOUSES, 1900-1980: TRADE AND PAPERBACK, 46 DICTIONARY OF LITERARY BIOGRAPHY 307 (1986) (“On 17 April 1960 Random House acquired Alfred A. Knopf, Incorporated, with Knopf and his wife Blanche retaining editorial control of books published under their respected Borzoi imprint. Acquired with Knopf was the Vintage line of quality paperbacks.”)