When I first started visiting rare book shows, back in the 1980s, I was told by many a dealer not to bother collecting the editions put out by The Franklin Library, a division of The Franklin Mint. Founded in 1964, in Wawa, Pennsylvania, The Franklin Mint produces all sorts of collectibles and commemorative items – gold and silver coins, plates, knives, dolls, model automobiles, and so forth. Beginning in 1973, Franklin also began to produce collectible books under the Franklin Library label, which they sold via monthly subscriptions, somewhat like the Book of the Month Club or the Library of America. This series, called The 100 Greatest Books of All Time, consisted entirely of classics – The Aeneid by Virgil, the Iliad and the Odyssey of Homer, Voltaire’s Candide, The Analects of Confucius, and so forth. I had no difficulty resisting these, because many were older translations that had been long ago deemed outmoded. But even those written in English – like David Copperfield or Jane Eyre – struck me as less than ideal. I preferred my classics to come from Penguin or the Oxford University Press, with plenty of annotations and ancillary information (author bios, scholarly intros, etc.). Later the company produced other series of books, including the Franklin Library of Pulitzer Prize Classics, The Greatest Books of the Twentieth Century, 100 Greatest Masterpieces of American Literature, and the Collected Stories of the World’s Greatest Writers series. I liked the look and feel of these books and often lingered over them in used-book stores, but my inner snob wouldn’t allow me to purchase a book from a company that also produced collectible dolls and pocketknives. I had allowed a handful of snooty rare-book dealers to convince me that these were not serious artifacts of the book publishing trade.
But I was wrong about the Franklin Library, and so were those snooty book dealers. The books they published were truly beautiful and well wrought. Many of them were published in genuine leather, but even their imitation leather and quarter-bound leather editions are handsome and lovingly crafted. Many are illustrated with drawings commissioned exclusively for the Franklin Library by gifted artists. The books are printed on acid-neutral archival paper, so even forty-year-old editions look brand new when you open them. The pages are not glued to the spine but sewn into it. Many editions feature a sewn-in ribbon that can be used as a bookmark. All sorts of touches – hubbed spine bands, embossed cover decorations, silk moiré fabric endpapers, raised lettering – give each volume a satisfying textural aspect. Many well-preserved Franklin Library volumes still give off that new-car smell if you hold them up to your nose. And the leather can feel as plush and luxurious as the upholstery in a new Jaguar XKE.
What finally brought me around was the Franklin Library of Mystery Masterpieces. This is a collection of 51 great books in the crime and mystery realm, issued between 1987 and 1990. In 2013, I was visiting my elderly, ailing parents at their home in Portland, Oregon, when I noticed a copy of Mousetrap and Other Plays by Agatha Christie on one of their bookshelves. It was the first title ever released in the Franklin Library of Mystery Masterpieces. My parents had never subscribed to the Franklin Library and they owned no other volumes from it, so I was surprised to see this one. It was probably a gift to my mother from one of her friends. My mother, who died in 2020 after a decade-long struggle with dementia, was an avid reader for most of her life. She was particularly fond of gothic romances and cozy mysteries. My father, who died in 2019, had many fine qualities but he had no interest in novels or short stories. He was an accountant and read mainly The Oregonian newspaper (especially the sports section) and work-related materials. In my youth, I rarely saw my mother with a hardbound book. We were a family of eight, so money was always an issue for us. My mother devoured mainly cheap, mass-market paperbacks, which may be why I am still so fond of that format. This high-quality hardback copy of Agatha Christie plays, bound in crimson velour, seemed seriously out of place in a house filled mainly with tattered paperbacks. I asked my father where it had come from, but he had no idea. I couldn’t ask my mother, because her memory and verbal skills were gone. Thus the book was, in more ways than one, a bit of a mystery. It obviously belonged to my mother, but how she had acquired it, I have no idea. I can’t imagine her ever buying it for herself. I live in Sacramento, California, and am not exactly made of money, so I was able to visit my parents in Portland only every two or three years or so. And each time I saw them, I knew there was a good possibility it might be the last time. With that in mind, I asked my father if I could take the Agatha Christie volume with me. He assented. And just like that, I now had a sort of sentimental attachment to the Franklin Library, a commercial entity I had always in the past considered beneath my consideration.
I took that first book home with me and found myself impressed by how well made it was. I’m not talking about Christie’s skill as a playwright, although that was also impressive. No, I’m talking about the craftsmanship that went into the object itself. Regardless of the quality of the writing inside, this book was a small work of art. And this is true of all of the books published by the Franklin Library. Over the next few years, when I could afford it, I bought other titles in the Franklin Library of Mystery Masterpieces. My personal collection now includes Mr. Moto’s Three Aces by John P. Marquand, Murder Must Advertise by Dorothy Sayers, A Kiss Before Dying by Ira Levin, The D.A. Calls It Murder by Erle Stanley Gardner, Laura by Vera Caspary, The Maltese Falcon by Dashiell Hammett, The Day of the Jackal by Frederick Forsyth, The Postman Always Rings Twice by James M. Cain, Farewell, My Lovely by Raymond Chandler, and several others. What’s more, I began looking into other Franklin Library series and found that some of them also contain books of interest to the crime-and-mystery fan. I bought a copy of short stories by Daphne Du Maurier called Kiss Me Again, Stranger, which was published in the company’s Collected Stories of the World’s Greatest Writers series.
My two favorite series, however, are The Franklin Library of Signed Limited Editions and the Franklin Library of Signed First Editions. From the series of Signed Limited Editions I have purchased books such as The Caine Mutiny by Herman Wouk, Advice and Consent by Alan Drury, A Bell for Adano by John Hersey, The Big Rock Candy Mountain by Wallace Stegner, The Confessions of Nat Turner by William Styron, Deliverance by James Dickey, The Optimist’s Daughter by Eudora Welty, The Group by Mary McCarthy, Young Lonigan by James T. Farrell, The Wapshot Chronicle by John Cheever, and several others. But the biggest surprise, for me, has been the Franklin Library of Signed First Editions. I had seen these books at rare book fairs for years and assumed that they were using the term “first edition” rather loosely. After all, every book fanatic knows that the first edition of Kurt Vonnegut’s 1976 novel Slapstick was published by Delacorte Press and featured memorable clown-themed cover art from legendary book designer Paul Bacon. Likewise, every fanatic collector knows that the first edition of Isaac Bashevis Singer’s The Death of Methuselah and Other Stories was, like all of his other books, published in America by Farar Strauss and Giroux. I figured that the Franklin Library was referring to its own editions as first editions simply because they were the first Franklin Library editions. But, no, I was wrong about that. Back in the day, the Franklin Library negotiated with various mass-market book publishers for the right to bring out a small privately published first editions of various prominent titles and to mail these books out to subscribers a few weeks before the mass-market edition would appear in bookstores across the country. Thus, books labeled Franklin Library Signed First Edition are, despite what grumpy fine-book dealers may say, true first editions. Look at the copyright page of the Delacorte edition of Slapstick or the FS&G edition of Methuselah, and you’ll find these words in small print: A signed first edition of this book has been privately printed by the Franklin Library. My collection of Franklin Library Signed First Editions includes both the Vonnegut and the Singer book mentioned above, as well as signed first editions of Billy Bathgate by E.L. Doctorow, Breathing Lessons by Anne Tyler, Death Is a Lonely Business by Ray Bradbury, Devices and Desires by P.D. James, Eva Luna by Isabel Allende, A Fanatic Heart by Edna O’Brien, and many others.
For Baby Boomers like myself, the Franklin Library is especially appealing because it includes autographed titles by, not just novelists, but some of the most important newsmakers of the Baby Boom era. Benjamin Spock is often credited (or blamed) for the relatively permissive way that Baby Boomers were raised by their parents. His book Baby and Child Care was published in 1946, the year that the Baby Boom began. In 1989, the Franklin Library brought out a signed first edition of his memoir Spock on Spock. I recently bought a pristine copy for twelve dollars. John Kenneth Galbraith was one of the most influential economists of the twentieth century as well as JFK’s ambassador to India. In 1978 the Franklin Library brought out a signed limited twentieth-anniversary edition of his influential 1958 book The Affluent Society. Copies can be found online in the thirty-dollar range. Alistair Cooke is well known to many Boomers, especially if their parents, like mine, were fans of PBS’s Masterpiece Theatre, which he hosted from 1971 to 1992. In 1986, the Franklin Library published a signed first edition of his essay collection The Patient Has the Floor. I recently purchased a copy online for twelve dollars. Susan Sontag was a writer/philosopher who had a huge influence on many Baby Boomers. The Franklin Library brought out a signed limited first edition of her 1992 novel The Volcano Lover. I recently bought a copy for thirty dollars. Arthur Schlesinger was one of the most prominent historians of the twentieth-century and an advisor to JFK. A signed Franklin Library first edition of his 1986 book The Cycles of American History can be purchased online for about twelve dollars. A signed Franklin Library edition of his book A Thousand Days: John F. Kennedy in The White House will run you about $40. Harrison Salisbury was one of the most influential journalists of the twentieth century. A signed Franklin Library edition of his 1988 book can be found online for well under twenty dollars. If you’re willing to spend more money, you can find signed Franklin Library editions by such twentieth-century thought leaders as Jean-Paul Sartre, Simone De Beauvoir, James Baldwin, and many others.
Most signed Franklin Library editions have more to recommend them than just the author’s signature. For its Signed First Edition series, the Franklin Library generally commissioned a special introduction by the author, a short essay which appeared only in that edition. Sometimes the introduction was written by a party connected to the author. For instance, the introduction to The Phantom of Manhattan was written by composer Andrew Lloyd Webber, a long-time friend of Frederick Forsyth’s. Most of these editions feature illustrations. They also contained ancillary material in a small paper pamphlet that accompanied the book (although these are sometimes gone by the time a Franklin Library book hits the secondary market).
Book snobs love to point out that the signature pages in the Franklin Library’s Signed Editions are “tipped in” rather than signed in situ. Among serious book collectors, there is a hierarchy of book signatures. At the top of the pyramid is a signature that the author scrawls into the actual book, usually on the title page or a front free endpaper (Ffep, in rare-book parlance). This is the most valued because it means that the author, if only for a few seconds, had the book in his possession. Next best is a tipped in signature. For a special edition of a book (such as a Franklin Library Signed Limited First), the author will be given several hundred, or several thousand, loose blank pages to sign. When these are signed, they are returned to the publisher and then permanently inserted into a limited number of books. These signatures are just as real as those delivered in situ, but the book itself was never handled by the author. He or she touched only the tipped in page. At the bottom of the signature pyramid is the signed bookplate. These are small squares with adhesive backing. The author signs the bookplate and then, later on, someone else affixes it to the book’s inside cover, or to a front free endpaper. For this reason, hardcore book collectors – serious people with serious money – tend to eschew book club editions with tipped in signatures in favor of first editions with signatures written in situ. This explains why a lot of rare-book dealers in the 1980s tended to look askance at books from the Franklin Library, even those signed by the author. If you invested some serious coin in acquiring a signed first edition of Wallace Stegner’s The Spectator Bird, you probably weren’t too happy to see a company known for its collectible dolls and pocketknives come out with their own “signed first edition” of the same title, thus glutting the market and, possibly, driving down prices. These dealers took pains to point out that Franklin Library signed firsts were somewhat of a gimmick, favored by pathetic strivers who think leather books are a sign of elite status. This belief is mocked in the film Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy, wherein the title character, played by Will Farrell, tries to impress a woman by telling her, “I’m very important. I have many leather-bound books and my apartment smells of mahogany.” Some snobs also sneer at the fact that the Franklin Library gave the quality leather treatment to mere pop fictioneers, bestselling writers such Dominick Dunne, Peter Mayle, Mickey Spillane, Robert Ludlum, and others of that ilk. Even worse, Franklin occasionally gave the quality leather treatment to celebrities like Carrie Fisher and Kirk Douglas, actors and actresses for whom novel-writing was more of a side gig.
In some cases, the last laugh may be on the snobs. Some of my Franklin Library Signed Firsts are autographed on a special page that identifies the book as a volume in the Franklin Library (see the Carrie Fisher signature page above, an image that I pulled from the internet). But often the author signed on a front free end paper rather than on the special page identifying the Franklin Library. I have books by E.L. Doctorow, Isabel Allende, Dominick Dunne, and many others that are signed on a free end paper despite the presence of a special Franklin Library i.d. page. What’s more, I have twice purchased Signed First Editions on the internet, only to receive the book and discover that the front free end paper that must have contained the signature has been expertly excised from the book. I bought these books from the website of Half Price Books in Dallas, TX. Half Price Books is a reputable company and wouldn’t have tried to con me. The book buyer at Half Price must have purchased the used copies without checking to see if the signatures were actually present. In both cases, I sent the book back to Half Price and got a refund. But the person who excised those pages didn’t just throw them away. No doubt, they expertly pasted them into a mass-market hardcopy edition. Which means that those hardcopies were probably sold as having been autographed in situ, when actually their signature pages were cut from another book. The Franklin Library’s Signed First Edition of Carrie Fisher’s Delusions of Grandma is currently one of the most sought-after, and expensive, titles in the entire series (her untimely death in 2016 created a huge demand for memorabilia related to her life and career). The American Book Exchange website (ABE.com) doesn’t have any available. The cheapest online copy I could find was listed for $475 on Etsy. But a seller on eBay was listing several dozen copies of Franklin Library’s signed edition of Delusions of Grandma for a paltry $9.95 each. The catch, however, was that he freely acknowledged having removed the signature page from each of these books. Presumably he bought the books, cut out the signature pages, and affixed them to mass-market hardback editions, which sell for more than the signed Franklin Library editions. This suggests that Carrie Fisher must have signed at least a few copies on the front free end paper rather than the page which identifies the book as a part of the Franklin Library (the con wouldn’t have worked if the seller attached a page identified as part of a Franklin edition into a mass-market edition). Thus, some snobs will likely end up buying what they think are books signed in situ by Carrie Fisher when what they actually are getting is a Frankenstein-like hybrid of the Franklin and mass-market editions (Franklinstein!). I’ll never be able to afford a signed Delusions of Grandma, so I went ahead and ordered a $9.95 copy of the signature-less Franklin Library edition from the eBay seller. The seller may be a conman, but except for the missing signature page, the books he is selling are in “very good” condition. It is a handsome, green-leather book that will look good on my shelves, even if it is missing the autograph.
I have seen various complaints online by collectors who are not fond of Franklin Library editions. One such complaint said, “Franklin Library abused ‘Limited Edition,’ a term liberally applied to a lot of its books, often with no specification of print size, and judging from their abundance on Abebooks and eBay, it is likely they are not that limited to start. Inflation leads invariably to devaluation. Notwithstanding these issues, there are collectible Franklins but their prices continue to be capped in the low hundreds at best.” This is a fair enough complaint from the perspective of someone looking to make money off the books. But if you are just interested in owning some of the best-made American books of the 20th century, then it doesn’t really matter how many copies of each book were printed. In fact, as far as I’m concerned, the more the merrier. If Franklin Library books are now extremely affordable because of the fact that the Library published so many copies, that strikes me as a good thing.
In a similar vein, I have seen serious collectors complain that Franklin Library books lack a so-called “limitation page.” Most high-quality, leather-bound editions are produced in a limited number, which can sometimes be as low as, say, a few dozen, and sometimes as high as several thousand. Mass-market books have no limitations. The first printing of a mass-market title, be it a hardback or a paperback, may comprise only five thousand copies, but if those copies sell out in a timely manner, the publisher will bring out more books, identical except for the printing number. My Bantam Books paperback copy of William Peter Blatty’s 1971 novel The Exorcist says that it is the 22nd printing. The book was hugely popular. The copyright page also notes that the Harper & Row hardback edition went through thirteen printings between May of 1971 and April of 1972. If, prior to the book’s hardback publication, Bantam Books had not secured the right to bring out a paperback edition in July of 1972, Harper & Row would probably have continued printing up additional hardbacks. At any rate, The Exorcist was an open-ended publication, meaning that the publishers brought out as many books as they could sell. Publishers of limited editions, usually bring out small editions that differ in some respects from the open-ended mass-market editions. As we’ve seen these differences include things such as leather bindings, sewn bindings, silk bookmarks, specially commissioned illustrations, gilded page edges, etc. Generally once these special limited editions sell out, they are never again reprinted. Their very scarcity is what makes these books valuable to collectors. And that is why collectors like to know if a limited edition book is one of only a hundred that were produced or one of 2,500. The fewer the better, as far as a collector is concerned. That’s why they prefer that limited edition books contain a limitation page that not only tells the buyer how many total books the edition comprises, but also what makes it special. The Easton Press’s limited edition of Paul Krugman’s book Arguing With Zombies contains a limitation page that looks like this:
This information lets the collector know that only one thousand copies of this particular limited edition were ever published. As someone who isn’t all that concerned about resale value, I don’t really care how many copies of a particular Franklin Library book were published. Is my autographed, leather-bound edition of Michael Crichton’s Travels part of an edition of one thousand or an edition of five thousand? Beats me. Franklin Library books don’t carry limitation pages. That doesn’t bother me, but most of the book snobs seem to see that as a strike against the books.
I’m not sure why I allowed snobbery to turn me against Franklin Library books for so long. After all, I’ve never had serious money. You’d think that, as a financially strapped booklover, I’d have welcomed a low-price alternative to expensive signed first editions. But I was a young man in the 1980s, and still aspired to the kind of wealth that might someday allow me to be a “serious” collector. Which is a shame, because I passed up some great books and some great values. It has only been in the last few years that I finally allowed myself to see what was apparent to others all along: Franklin Library books are, for the most part, wonderful to hold, beautiful to look at, and they add classiness to any shelf upon which they sit. Most important, however, is that they are also very readable, with nice handsome typefaces and pages that remain unyellowed by time. In the last few years I’ve acquired a few dozen signed Franklin editions of the kind of middle-brow fiction I’m fond of, including John Hersey’s The Call, Robertson Davies’s The Lyre of Orpheus, and John Barth’s The Sot-Weed Factor. The cheapest one in my collection, William F. Buckley’s The Story of Henri Tod, I purchased for a mere $6.98, which is probably less than the book cost to produce. The most expensive, Raymond Carver’s Where I’m Calling From (pictured directly below), cost me $59 (which, for me, is serious money).
That Carver book perfectly illustrates the bizarro world of rare-book collecting. The mass-market hardback edition (pictured directly above this paragraph) was published in 1988 by Atlantic Monthly Press. As an example of the late twentieth century American hardback book, Where I’m Calling From is no great masterpiece (I’m talking about the book as a physical object, not the contents of Carver’s masterful stories). If you’re old enough and you paid attention to publishing back in the 1960s and 1970s, you can probably still recall many of the prominent book covers of those decades – Paul Bacon’s designs for Catch-22 and Portnoy’s Complaint, the covers of Jaws and Love Story and The Exorcist and The Choirboys. But I doubt you can call to mind the cover of the Atlantic Monthly Press’s edition of Where I’m Calling From. It’s nothing special. Nonetheless, when I checked a moment ago, the cheapest signed copy of that book I could find on the American Book Exchange website was priced at $365. I counted 22 copies of the Franklin Library’s signed edition selling for less than that on ABE. Ten of them are listed at under $100. Ask a person unfamiliar with the rare-book trade to exam the two editions – Atlantic vs. Franklin – and then ask them which they think is the most valuable book. I guarantee you they will pick the Franklin edition. In every possible way, it is superior to the mass-market edition. The cover art design is stunning. The book contains an introduction by Carver that isn’t in the mass-market edition. The Franklin edition is the true first edition, having been sent to subscribers before the mass-market edition hit the bookstores. The pages are gilt-edged, the spine is hubbed, the cover design is done in relief, and the frontispiece contains an illustration commissioned exclusively for the Franklin edition. Preferring the Atlantic Press edition over the Franklin Library edition is like preferring a run-down twenty-year-old Ford Fiesta to a mint-condition Shelby Cobra. It’s crazy. Imagine if a small, nondescript house in a rough part of town were selling for a million dollars while, across town in one of the area’s best neighborhoods, a beautifully crafted mansion were selling for $100,000. That would never happen in the real-estate world, but it happens all the time in world of book collecting. This kind of craziness also pertains in the art world. In 2013, a sculpture of a balloon dog by American artist Jeff Koons sold for close to sixty million dollars. If you offered to give me that sculpture for free, with the proviso that I could never sell it or bequeath it to anyone but could only display it in my house or yard, I would not accept the offer. I have no desire to deface my property with a ten-foot-tall purple balloon dog sculpture.
But the craziness of the rare-book business is a boon to booklovers, like myself, whose pockets aren’t especially deep. It means that, for relatively little money, I can own books that are in every way superior to some of the books that collectors are paying large sums of money for. Just as I can buy artworks at local flea markets and art fairs that I find much more stirring and meaningful than a Jeff Koons balloon dog, I can buy reasonably-priced Franklin Library editions of the works of Graham Greene, Raymond Carver, and Kurt Vonnegut that impress me much more than editions selling for far greater sums of money. My wife and I live very modestly. My most recent regular job was at an Amazon.com warehouse where I helped load vans for local deliveries. We do not have a lot of money, but thanks to the Franklin Library, I have been able to amass a small collection of exquisite leather-bound books, some of them signed by Pulitzer Prize-winning authors (William Kennedy, Anne Tyler, Alison Lurie, Arthur Miller, Philip Roth, Norman Mailer, Eudora Welty, John Cheever, Wallace Stegner, etc.) and a few of them even signed by Nobel Prize-winning authors (V.S. Naipaul, Isaac Bashevis Singer, Nadine Gordimer). I feel the way a somewhat wealthier man might feel if he were to find an obscure online site where he could purchase mint condition vintage sports cars for just a few hundred bucks. I’m torn between wanting to shout about this great source of high-quality but incredibly low-priced books, and wanting to keep quiet about it, lest I help to drive prices up. In the early 1980s, the Oxford University Press decided to bring out a series called The Oxford Library of the World’s Great Books, and they went looking for a company that could publish these volumes in extremely high-quality bindings. After inspecting the products of many fine publishing companies, Oxford chose the Franklin Library. Most Franklin Library enthusiasts who write about the company online seem to believe that the books in The Oxford Library of the World’s Best Books are the most well-made volumes ever to come from the Franklin Library. In yesterday’s mail I received a copy of the Franklin-Oxford edition of Joseph Conrad’s Lord Jim. It had been published in 1984. It is bound in beautiful brick-colored leather with gold decorative touches on the cover and the spine. The book arrived in its original factory wrapping. After leaving the factory in 1984, the leather had never been touched by another human hand until I unwrapped it 37 years later. It was in absolutely pristine condition and I paid $5.98 for it! If the deep-pocketed book snobs of the world were more interested in these volumes, I’d never be able to afford them.
But don’t let me give you the impression that no serious book collector admires the Franklin Library. The Library has plenty of fans, and you can find them on Facebook, or showing off photos of their collections on Instagram, or talking to each other about their collection on various sites online where booklovers congregate. But do people actually read Franklin Library volumes, or do they buy them just to display on their shelves? That’s a good question. Oftentimes, Franklin Library volumes are offered for sale in the manufacturer’s original shrink-wrap packaging, meaning that they have not only never been read but never even been opened. This suggests that these books were purchased mainly for collecting and not for reading. Which is kind of a shame, because the books are very readable. Just today, in September of 2021, I received in the mail a signed copy of the Franklin Library edition of William Kennedy’s 1996 novel The Flaming Corsage that was still in its original shrink-wrapped packaging. I paid $21.56 for it. That book has been sitting unread and untouched for a quarter of a century. My signed copy of Nadine Gordimer’s 1991 book Jump and Other Stories, also arrived in its original shrink-wrapped packaging, 30 years after it was shipped from the Franklin Library. And my signed copy of Martin Cruz Smith’s 1996 Victorian sensation novel Rose arrived not only in its original shrink-wrap, but also still sealed within the cardboard shipping container in which it was originally mailed out to some subscriber. I almost hated to open it! After all, how many others can still be out there in their original packaging? But when I buy a Franklin volume, I want to revel in the sight and the feel and the smell of it! And I may also want to read it. I’m grateful to all the collectors who bought Franklin Library books but never took them out of the package. It allows me to experience what it was like to receive a brand-new volume in the mail, a book that had never been handled by another living soul. It means I can feel like a subscriber.
The first book from the Franklin Library that I actually read from cover to cover was John P. Marquand’s 1937 Pulitzer Prize-winner The Late George Apley. I made this choice pretty much randomly, but it turned out to be a good one. Marquand’s novel is a gentle spoof of Boston’s high society in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. The story is set mainly in stuffy old Beacon Hill mansions, the kind of homes likely to contain an ostentatious display of leather-bound books. In the novel’s opening pages, the narrator waxes nostalgic about all the evenings he spent with George Apley “in that snug room situated at the head of his stairs on the second floor of the Beacon Street house, walled in by the leather backs of good books, with the prints of sailing ships above the shelves and his collection of shaving mugs just below them. His interests may have been varied, but his discrimination undeviating.” Although the narrator intends this as a compliment, Marquand and the reader see it as a kind of silly affectation. But reading about these fine leather-bound volumes in a fine leather-bound volume of my own – one that actually retained the leathery smell of a new car – helped bring the scene vividly to life.
So, is a shelf full of leather-bound Franklin Library books a sign of literary affectation or genuine affection? I suppose it can be a bit of both. My wife and I don’t entertain a lot of visitors in our home. And those we do entertain aren’t likely to be impressed by leather-bound books. So if I built my small collection to impress others, I’d probably be disappointed with it. And though it is easy to make fun of people like George Apley, I don’t see anything wrong with enjoying the look and feel (and smell) of fine leather books. Heck, I don’t see anything wrong with sentimental seascapes and shaving mug collections. If they bring you joy, why not collect them?
To be honest, however, it can be a bit unsettling to read a Franklin Library book, especially if, like me, you are primarily a reader of cheap used paperbacks. Generally, Franklin volumes have been so beautifully preserved that they have the aura of holy relics. Handling them is like handling an ancient family heirloom, not something you want to do thoughtlessly. It can be difficult to disappear into a book if you are afraid of damaging it. I certainly wouldn’t read a Franklin volume while snacking on some chips. I don’t read Franklin volumes in bed for fear that I might nod off and drop the book to the floor. Unlike my paperbacks, I would never toss a few of them in my car, just I case I find myself stuck somewhere with nothing to read. I certainly wouldn’t take one to the beach or pack it into my backpack before going on a hike. It is almost a relief to me when a used Franklin Library book shows up in my mail and isn’t in pristine condition. If it already has a bit of foxing or bumping, I don’t feel like I have to treat it like a delicate crystal vase. But, more often than not, Franklin books show up in excellent condition. Often, it is clear that the book has never been read, or even cracked open. And, as mentioned, sometimes they haven’t even been removed from their original packaging. When Michael Crichton’s autobiographical Travels showed up recently, in mint condition, I was eager to read it. It is one of the few Crichton books I’d never read, probably because I prefer fiction to nonfiction. I made myself comfortable in a nice leather chair. I held the book to my nose and sniffed in the wonderful smell. I opened it gently and heard the slight crackling sound. I read the introductory remarks that appear in only the Franklin edition and no other. And then I delved into the first of the book’s many short essays. But every time a cat jumped into my lap, I found myself hurrying to lift the book up and out of harm’s way, something I would never do with a paperback or even an ordinary hardback book. I would have liked to have had a soda sitting next to me on the end table, but I feared that I might somehow end up spilling it on my book. Eventually, Crichton won me over and I began to lose myself in his writing. But I can’t say it was a completely relaxing experience.
Understandably, the Franklin Library didn’t actually discover any new writers in the way that traditional publishing houses often do. Their various series of classic books reprinted nothing but old literary chestnuts by long-dead white guys. But even the living authors they published were, for the most part, writers – such as A.S. Byatt, Anne Tyler, and Michael Crichton – who had already made a name for themselves in the publishing world. Franklin published only books that were already in the process of being published by some mass-market company, so they couldn’t possibly have taken credit for discovering a writer. But they did make a few good guesses over the years, every now and then taking a chance on a book whose author had not yet established himself as a literary star but whom Franklin seemed to think had the stuff to become one. This happened in 1994 when they published a signed first edition of The Alienist by Caleb Carr. At the time, Carr had published only one previous novel, a dud called Casing the Promised Land, which Harper & Row brought out in 1980 to little, if any, acclaim (Carr himself has largely disowned it). The Alienist was a huge bestseller, indicating that someone at the Franklin Library must have an eye for literary talent. Two years earlier, in 1992, Franklin published a signed first edition of a first novel by Allen Kurzweil called A Case of Curiosities. The book never became a bestseller, but it garnered excellent reviews both in America and in Europe (where it won several awards and honors). Although relatively obscure, its inclusion in the Franklin Library certainly did no harm to the Library’s reputation. More questionable, however is the inclusion of Warren Adler’s 1991 novel Private Lies. As a novelist, Adler was fairly unspectacular. Two of his books – 1981’s The War of the Roses, and 1984’s Random Hearts – were made into major motion pictures. This might have given the editors at Franklin the idea that he was some kind of literary heavyweight. But he published more than thirty novels over the course of a long career without ever becoming a breakout literary star. Private Lies isn’t a bad book, but it seems somewhat out of place among works by the likes of E.L. Doctorow, Isaac Bashevis Singer, John Irving, and Gore Vidal. Arguably an even bigger misstep was the publication of James Finn Garner’s 1997 memoir Apocalypse Wow!, which almost no one remembers these days. An earlier book, Politically Correct Bedtime Stories, had been a huge bestseller for Garner. But nothing he’s done since then has had nearly as much impact. You can argue that a few of the other titles in the Signed First Edition series didn’t really belong there either. John Gregory Dunne wrote two excellent crime novels – True Confessions and Dutch Shea, Jr. – before being discovered by the Franklin Library. After that he wrote two disappointing novels – Playland and The Red White and Blue – both of which got the Signed First Editions treatment. Franklin should have reprinted his first two novels as part of its Signed Limited Edition series and passed on the later two. Curiously, both Dunne’s wife (Joan Didion) and brother (Dominick Dunne) were published by the Franklin Library. But Dominick Dunne’s three Franklin Library titles – An Inconvenient Woman, A Season in Purgatory, and Another City, Not My Own – were among his best work. Joan Didion had one of her novels – The Book of Common Prayer – published in the Signed Limited Editions series, and another novel – The Last Thing He Wanted – published in the Signed First Editions series.
I believe in supporting my local bookstores to the greatest extent possible. When I find myself wanting a particular book, I will always search for it locally first. Alas, much of what I read is old, obscure, and out of print. I am often forced to purchase these books online. But if I can find a book I want in a local shop, I will usually buy it there, even if the price is higher than the online price. If a local used bookstore wants twelve dollars for a book I can get for six dollars (including shipping) online, I’ll buy it locally. Unfortunately, I buy very few Franklin Library books locally. This isn’t because I can’t find any. Plenty of used bookstores and antique shops in the Sacramento area carry Franklin Library books. But, in my experience, they are almost always seriously overpriced. I’m not talking about a matter of a few dollars. The other day I saw a Franklin Library Signed First Edition of John Gregory Dunne’s aforementioned novel Playland at a local antiques co-op. The book was in fairly rough shape – banged up, nicked, faded. The seller was asking $55 for it. Considering the condition it was in, I wouldn’t have purchased it for five dollars. But I was able to find a pristine copy of the book on ABE.com for twelve dollars, so I bought it, even though I’m not a big fan of it (I liked the cover art and thought it would look good in my collection). This is a fairly common occurrence. It seems that my local book and antiques dealers don’t realize how inexpensively Franklin Library books can be found online, or else they are simply hoping that their customers don’t know it. I’d be willing to pay a local bookseller an extra ten bucks or so for a good Franklin Library book, but usually the difference in price between the local bookstore and the internet is much more than that. The other day I found a Franklin Library book at a local store marked at $75. I found a dozen copies of the same book online listed for about $20. I realize that the owners of brick-and-mortar shops have much heavier expenses than online-only shops. But I’m not in a position to pay three or four times the going rate for a book just to support the local guys. I wish I were. I love local bookstores and I love Franklin Library books, but rarely am I able to combine these two loves.
At any rate, I am no longer a snob where Franklin Library books are concerned. Sadly, my about face arrived too late to do the Franklin Library any good. Although the Franklin Mint still exists and still turns out collectible birdbaths, door-knockers and, ironically, bookends, The Franklin Library went out of business in 2000. I’m not sure exactly what killed off the Library. It’s easy to imagine that the skyrocketing costs of leather and silk and other high-end materials might have made the books increasingly more expensive to manufacture. By lurking on various web discussions of the Franklin Library, I’ve learned that an excess of generosity (or, perhaps, avarice) on the part of the Library may have been part of the problem. Former subscribers note that you could subscribe to a variety of different series of Franklin Library books. For instance, you could subscribe to the 100 Greatest Books of All Time series (modeled after the University of Chicago’s Great Books of the Western World series) and they would send you one book a month, which you could either return, or else keep and pay for. But no sooner would you be hooked on that series than they would begin urging you to subscribe to the 100 Greatest Masterpieces of American Literature series, or the World’s Best-Loved Books series. Oftentimes the same title would appear in multiple series (although always in an edition designed uniquely for each series). Some old-time subscribers complain that they got burnt out by the continuous flow of offerings. They liked the idea of collecting everything the Library published, but it would have been financially ruinous to do so. I have no definitive numbers, but my internet research tells me that the Franklin Library produced a total of twelve different series of books over the course of its 27-year existence:
The 100 Greatest Books of All Time
The 100 Greatest Masterpieces of American Literature
Collected Stories of the World’s Greatest Writers
Pulitzer Prize Classics
Greatest Books of the 20thCentury
World’s Best-Loved Books
Great Books of the Western World
Signed First Editions
Signed Limited Editions
Limited First Editions
Library of Mystery Masterpieces
Oxford Library of the World’s Greatest Books (in cooperation with Oxford University Press)
Some old-time subscribers say that there were actually two separate series of Pulitzer Prize-winning books, a fiction collection and a non-fiction collection. I haven’t counted up every title, but I found one collector online who claims that the Franklin Library published a grand total of 782 titles (although, as noted, this includes a few titles that were published in more than one series). I don’t know how many copies of each title were printed. I don’t know how many subscribers it had at its peak (or even at its nadir). It appears the company tried to target its advertising at fairly well-off booklovers. My Franklin Library copy of Gore Vidal’s Empire came with a 25-year-old envelope tucked inside it. In the envelope is a small card that bears this message:
These editions of Travels and Empire
have been personally signed by Michael Crichton and Gore Vidal.
Each book has been bound in fine leather
and printed on archival paper.
The deluxe editions of these critically acclaimed books
are presented with our compliments
to supporters of
The Aspen Institute
on the occasion of their annual meeting
October 10, 1996
Lynda and Stewart Resnick
The Franklin Mint
The Aspen Institute is a deep-pocketed international think tank that brings together wealthy people in the world of business and philanthropy in an effort to guide their thinking in an ethical way. Its creation was inspired by the aforementioned Great Books program at the University of Chicago. I don’t know what exactly the connection was between The Aspen Institute and The Franklin Mint, but presumably the Resnicks thought it couldn’t hurt to pass on some high-quality Franklin Library books to the kind of people who attend the Institute’s annual meetings. My guess, however, is that most of the subscribers to the Franklin Library were not deep-pocketed jet-setters but rather ordinary middle-class Americans who just happened to love good books.
Special limited editions of highly esteemed books have been a hallmark of the book trade for centuries, but they really flourished in the twentieth century, when various improvements in manufacturing and marketing made them more commercially viable. In America these have long been associated with working-class and middle-class people aspiring to improve their lot in life. The Great Books of the Western World Series, the Encyclopedia Britannica, Colliers Encyclopedia, the World Book Encyclopedia, The Encyclopedia Americana, The Limited Editions Club, Heritage Press, the Easton Press, the Folio Society, the Library of America, Modern Library, Everyman’s Library, The Harvard Classics (aka Dr. Eliot’s Five-Foot Shelf of Books), The Loeb Classical Library – the list goes on and on. Often immigrant parents with limited English skills bought these books in the hope that their own children would learn from them to become better versed in Western Civilization. It was hoped that these books would help the children move up into a higher, more elite social and economic class. According to Wikipedia: “For many families owning a set of Collier's Encyclopedia became a status symbol. P.F. Collier and Son had credit qualification standards for purchasers. In the 1950s, one of the qualifiers to determine if a family could afford the books was the presence of a telephone in the household. A company branch manager was required to phone the household to verify the details of each in-home sales order.” This was true of many other series of books that were sold by door-to-door salesmen or offered in monthly subscriptions that were advertised in popular magazines such as The Saturday Evening Post and Life. And, of course, there have also been plenty of series targeted at lovers of particular literary genres. Mystery fans of a certain age can probably recall the Detective Book Club 3-in-1 editions, wherein three complete novels were bound in one volume and sold via subscription. I still see these volumes all the time at used-book stores, garage sales, and flea markets. And that was just one of numerous mystery-and-crime book series that have been advertised in the back pages of various crime magazines, including Ellery Queens Mystery Magazine, over the last seven or eight decades. The Louis L’Amour Collection includes 90 of his western novels and a few dozen of his story collections all bound in (fake) cowhide. Numerous quality book clubs offering a selection of finely bound science-fiction and fantasy works have popped up through the years.
Although these subscription-only services still exist, their heyday is long past. Nowadays, many younger people prefer to do their reading on electronic devices, often while commuting to work on a subway or eating lunch at a Subway. The idea of shelling out $40 or $50 for a leather-bound, gilt-edged book that can’t be conveniently tucked into a purse or a pocket probably strikes many of them as absurd, especially when an electronic edition is likely to be available online at a tenth of the price. And I can’t blame them for that. Those fusty old leather books were made for a slower, less hectic era, when NetFlix and Amazon Prime and Hulu and Spotify and Facebook and Twitter weren’t all competing for your free time. Leather-bound subscription-service books hark back to a time when there wasn’t much to do after the dinner dishes had been washed and dried other than to settle down in the living room with a good book. The Franklin Library, like so many other subscription-book services is long gone now. But its books are still with us, brightening up homes and used-book store shelves and rare book fairs and libraries and other venues. Decades after NetFlix or Twitter or Facebook have run their course and gone out of business, what beautiful relics will be left behind to remind us of their existence?
These days, it isn’t just I who have changed my tune about these fine books. Most of the dealers I run into at rare-book shows also seem to be singing the praises of the Franklin Library. After all, now that it is defunct, its products are all at least twenty years old (generally accepted as the minimum age for something to be declared an “antique”) and only a finite number of them exist. Like Partridge Family lunch boxes and Studebaker Transtar pick-up trucks, no more of them are being made. They have at long last become true relics of our literary culture. What’s more, inside each and every one of them, is a story you may just fall in love with. And you can’t say that about a pocketknife or a commemorative plate.