my personal collection of the Viking Portable Library, organized by spine #

There are few publishing ventures as wonderful as the Viking Portable Library.  While the Modern Library, for a long time offered low cost hardcover classics, they were all separate works.  But in the Viking Portable Library, you could sum up great authors in the scope of one book.

If you followed the wits of the Algonquin Round Table, you know that Alexander Woollcott often got the short end of the stick (he was savaged as the lead character in The Man Who Came to Dinner and when he looked at one of his own books and sighed “Ah, what is so rare as a Woollcott first edition”, Franklin Adams quickly replied “A Woollcott second edition.”).  But in the first part of World War II, remembering his days as a soldier during the first World War, Woollcott decided to put together a book of pieces from various American authors for servicemen to read.  He proposed it to his publishing house, Viking.  It would be hardcover (a flexible hardcover for durability and making it easy to put anywhere), but also small, compact, though with a lot of pages.  They had light paper and small margins, but were compact, and most of all, portable.  After all, they were being designed for soldiers.

As You Were: A Portable Library of American Prose and Poetry Assembled for Members of the Armed Forces and the Merchant Marines was published in March, 1943.  Woollcott did not live to see the beginning of the Viking Portable Library, as he died of a heart attack in January of 1943.  But one of the most efficient ways of collecting great literature had begun.  It was followed almost immediately by The Portable Steinbeck, a book that was easy to put together as Steinbeck himself was a Viking author.  The back of the Steinbeck made clear the mission of the Portable Library: “to present a considerable quantity of widely popular reading in a volume so small that it can conveniently be carried and read in places where a book of ordinary format would be a hindrance.”

There is a good introduction to the Viking Portable Library to be found here, though there are some mistakes (not all the first dozen drew from Viking works and Sanctuary was never out of print, though it was the only Faulkner title in print at the time of the Portable).

four different styles for The Portable Faulkner

The Portables grew quickly.  By the end of the war there were already a dozen, including Hemingway and by the end of 1946, there were 27, including Fitzgerald, Twain, Woollcott himself, and of course, Faulkner.  The Portable Faulkner is one of the most famous and for good reason.  When Malcolm Cowley put together the Portable Faulkner, all of his books except Sanctuary were out of print.  He was working in Hollywood and hadn’t put out a book in four years.  But the Portable Faulkner revitalized his career.  It showed the whole scope of the best of the American writers and allowed people to truly understand his place in American fiction.  Just a few years later, he won the Nobel Prize, making him the first Nobel Prize winner to be in the Portable collection (the next three Americans to win the Nobel Prize all also had Portables – Hemingway, Steinbeck and Bellow).

The initial burst of authors had been American and the only 2 of the first 20 who weren’t were British (Shakespeare and Wilde).  The first foreign language author came with #21 – Rabelais.  But the focus was still mostly English language writers.  Numbers 49 to 53 had been a series of Poetry of the English Speaking World and then there had been, mysteriously, no #54 that I have ever been able to discover.  After The Portable Nietzsche, #62 in the series, things began to change a little.  It was 1955 and the Portables stopped being printed in the flexible hardcovers.  They began being printed in paperback.

my collection, organized by style

The start of the paperbacks began a new direction for the Portables.  Initially, only 10 of them were printed in paperback (Whitman, Twain, Rabelais, Lawrence, Dante, Hawthorne, Greek Reader, Voltaire, Medieval Reader, Gibbon) — all of them well beyond copyright protection except Lawrence.  By this time, several of the original group of Portables had gone out of print and never ended up being printed in paperback.  These included the now hard to find Portable Hemingway and Portable Fitzgerald.  To get either one with a dust jacket can easily run into the high double digits (ironically, Fitzgerald is also the author of one of the hardest to find Modern Library books – The Great Gatsby).  It is not a coincidence that those two writers, along with Thomas Wolfe, were Scribners authors.  In 1952, Charles Scribner III died and his son took over the publishing house, and he brought many Scribners authors books back into his own house and out of their reprint licenses.  The other books never to appear in paperback included most of the odd early collections, including As You Were.  The other major difference was the great slowing down of new titles.  While in just over a decade, the series had grown to #62, in the next fifteen years they barely grew at all and by the end of the sixties they were only up to #68.

They did start revising older versions, though.  While The Portable Steinbeck had been revised as far back as 1946, the sixties saw revisions for Faulkner, Joyce, Thoreau and Dante.  All of these were in the new paperback versions, with a Viking ship on the spine, with a number on the sail.  This remained the style until 1975, when Viking was purchased by Penguin Books.  While the advent of the ISBN system in the late 60’s and early 70’s meant that some of the books with the sail on them began to have ISBNs (all the ISBNs matched the numbering system – they began 014015 – the next three digits were the catalog number – for instance 018 for Faulkner – and then the check digit; for the books that were no longer made, that ISBN was simply never used – thus while the Portable Woollcott, had it still been in print when the ISBN system was established would have been 014015017X, instead there is no book with that number), now the books were redesigned.  The sail was abandoned and instead, on the spine, was a small penguin with the ISBN just above it.  By this time, they were up to P79 (the catalog number before the advent of the ISBN was a P followed by the number), although for some reason there was no P72 and that ISBN has been skipped – perhaps there was a Portable planned that got deleted.

After this, the numbering is tracked by that three digit stretch in the ISBN.  Under this system, the numbering would eventually grow to 107, though there would be some irregularities (several numbers are skipped and four of the numbers in the eighties were assigned to a four book series called the Portable Library American Literature Survey).  They also started to give out new numbers to later editions, rather than releasing revised versions with the same number.  To this end, Dorothy Parker, Sherwood Anderson, Walt Whitman, Geoffrey Chaucer, Oscar Wilde, Ralph Waldo Emerson and Vladimir Nabokov would all end up with two different numbers.  We also ended up with non-portable titles with the same content as the Portables.  Thus, I own the Penguin Dorothy Parker, which is the same book as the Portable except for the title and ISBN and The Portable Nabokov was identical to the previously released Nabokov’s Congeries.

The design also began to change again.  Starting with #91, The Portable Tolstoy (published in 1978), the covers were changed to a different type of cover – usually blue, with a consistent spine that said The Viking Portable Library at the top, followed by the author and then an ISBN with a penguin surrounded by an orange circle at the bottom.  This version lasted through the eighties and by the end, we were up to 100.  Then the Portables became considerably less portable, with the books now being printed in trade paper size.  It allowed for a better binding and the books stayed together better, but they were not quite the style that was originally intended.  The numbering also stopped with #109 (The Portable Darwin, published in 1993).  New portables in this large white design continued to be published throughout the nineties, but there was no system to the ISBN’s.  Finally, one more redesign was added after the millenium, with the Portables becoming consistent with the current Penguin Classic design, with all book spines and designs.  This hasn’t stopped the publishing cycle and the most recent, The Portable Charles W. Chesnutt, was published in 2008.  To get a good idea of the various covers through the years, you can go here, though they make some odd choices of the main cover to show and the list is incomplete.

Portables for sale at the New England Mobile Book Fair

Many of the Portables are now out of print, though they are easy to find at many used bookstores.  And many of them are still in print and easy to buy or order from any decent bookstore.  Some bookstores even keep them shelved together (in the Boston area this most notably includes Bryn Mawr Books, a used bookstore which shelves them all together and New England Mobile Book Fair, which shelves things by publisher).  They are still a great way to collect classic texts.  With many of these authors, you wouldn’t need any of their other books and with others, they serve as a great introduction.  They of course, serve the whole course of literary history, beginning with the Greeks and including many of the greatest writers of the 20th Century.  Interestingly, though, there are some glaring omissions.  For a long time, Chekhov was the only Russian writer included and there is still no Dostoevsky.  Nabokov, Greene and Bellow are all in the catalog (though only Greene is still in print), but Philip Roth and John Updike are notable omissions among the great late 20th Century writers whose work easily adapts to such a style (presumably because of licensing issues) and no list of great writers would be complete without Camus, Kafka or Virginia Woolf, none of whom are included.

My current goal is simply to get one of each.  I don’t care about dust jackets (some of the early titles are quite expensive if you want a dust jacket), don’t care about the styles (I prefer the sails or the eighties design, but I’ll get what I can and because of when they were in print, several of the titles are only available in one style) and don’t feel the need to get different versions if they have been revised.  When put in a spreadsheet, there are 121 of them and I have 77 of them, with another 10 eliminated because I have a different version.  That just leaves 34 to get.

There are essentially five styles – the hardcover, the sail, the penguin (blue cover), the white trade (all four of these are faced out in the Faulkner picture) and the black trade.  There are a few variations (the penguin with the ISBN and a few of them were printed in a hardcover version later in the print run — apparently they were licensed to Random House to do these print runs, either as remainders or for schools).  Of the titles I have, they break down this way.

  • Original Hardcover Style  –  5  (4 are first editions, including the Faulkner)
  • Original Hardcover Style, no dust jackets  –  7
  • Mass Market with the Sail  –  19
  • initial Penguin with ISBN  –  9
  • 1980’s style with Penguin and blue cover  –  21
  • later Hardcover  –  2
  • White Trade Paper  –  11

I don’t have any of the black trades yet, but the last few titles are only available in that style, so eventually I’ll get some.  And if the numbers don’t quite add up that’s because I have 4 different versions of the Portable Faulkner (of course I do).

Anyway, here is the printing history for the complete list.  By the way, I have no idea how and why they decided that some writers should have their first name included in the title and some didn’t need to, but I have gone with what they list.  It’s hard to find much written about this series in spite of its long glorious history (and especially its place in Faulkner’s history), which is why I have expended so much energy on this post.  Hopefully I can inspire some people to collect a truly great set.  This is what bookcases are for.  To hold sets like this.

The titles listed in bold are titles I have in format or another.  Those that have links are those currently available through the Booksmith.  It is not a definitive list of those that are currently in print, but it is close enough.

  1. As You Were
    • pub. 1943 — never published in paperback
  2. Steinbeck
    • pub. 1943 — revised in 1946
  3. Triumph of Life
    • pub. 1943 — never published in paperback
  4. Dorothy Parker
    • pub. 1944 — revised as #74 in 1973
  5. World Bible
    • pub. 1944
  6. Hemingway
    • pub. 1944 — never published in paperback
  7. Six Novels of the Supernatural
    • pub. 1944 — never published in paperback
  8. Shakespeare
    • pub. 1944
  9. Reader’s Companion
    • pub. 1945 — never published in paperback
  10. Carl Van Doren
    • pub. 1945 — never published in paperback
  11. Walt Whitman
    • pub. 1945 — revised as #78 in 1974
  12. Poe
    • pub. 1945
  13. Murder Book
    • pub. 1945 — never published in paperback
  14. Fitzgerald
    • pub. 1945 — never published in paperback
  15. Novels of Science
    • pub. 1945 — never published in paperback
  16. Oscar Wilde
    • pub. 1946  — revised as #93 in 1981
  17. Woollcott
    • pub. 1946 — never published in paperback
  18. Faulkner
    • pub. 1946 — revised in 1967
  19. Irish Reader
    • pub. 1946
  20. Mark Twain
    • pub. 1946
  21. Rabelais
    • pub. 1946
  22. Wolfe
    • pub. 1946 — never published in paperback
  23. Russian Reader
    • pub. 1946
  24. Lardner
    • pub. 1946 — never published in paperback
  25. Emerson
    • pub. 1946 — revised as #94 in 1981
  26. Blake
    • pub. 1946
  27. Elizabethan Reader
    • pub. 1946
  28. D.H. Lawrence
    • pub. 1947
  29. Maupassant
    • pub. 1947
  30. James Joyce
    • pub. 1947 — revised in 1966
  31. Thoreau
    • pub. 1947 — revised in 1964
  32. Dante
    • pub. 1947 — revised in 1969
  33. Conrad
    • pub. 1947
  34. Johnson and Boswell
    • pub. 1947
  35. Chekhov
    • pub. 1947
  36. Veblen
    • pub. 1948
  37. Swift
    • pub. 1948
  38. Hawthorne
    • pub. 1948
  39. Greek Reader
    • pub. 1948
  40. Plato
    • pub. 1948
  41. Voltaire
    • pub. 1949
  42. Sherwood Anderson
    • pub. 1949 — later revised as #76
  43. Charles Lamb
    • pub. 1949
  44. Milton
    • pub. 1949
  45. Matthew Arnold
    • pub. 1949
  46. Medieval Reader
    • pub. 1949
  47. Chaucer
    • pub. 1949 — later revised as #81
  48. Coleridge
    • pub. 1950
  49. Medieval and Renaissance Poets
    • 5 volume Poets of the English Speaking World set — all published in 1950
  50. Elizabethan and Jacobean Poets
  51. Restoration and Augustan Poets
  52. Romantic Poets
  53. Victorian and Edwardian Poets
  54. no title
    • because of the way WordPress works, if I don’t include the numbers that didn’t get titles, it will screw up the whole numbering system
  55. Henry James
    • pub. 1951
  56. Roman Reader
    • pub. 1951
  57. Cervantes
    • pub. 1949 — uncertain why it has a later number
  58. Melville
    • pub. 1952
  59. Arabian Nights
    • pub. 1952
  60. Gibbon
    • pub. 1952
  61. Renaissance Reader
    • pub. 1953
  62. Nietzsche
    • pub. 1954
  63. Age of Reason Reader
    • pub. 1956
  64. Romantic Reader
    • pub. 1957
  65. Greek Historians
    • pub. 1959
  66. Prescott
    • pub. 1963
  67. Hakluyt’s Voyages
    • pub. 1967
  68. Stephen Crane
    • pub. 1969
  69. Victorian Reader
    • pub. 1972
  70. Jung
    • pub. 1971
  71. Arthur Miller
    • pub. 1971
  72. no title
  73. Nabokov
    • pub. 1971 — previously printed as Nabokov’s Congeries; later revised as #106
  74. Dorothy Parker
    • pub. 1973 — revised version; first revised version to get a new number; later reprinted as The Penguin Dorothy Parker, which I have
  75. Graham Greene
    • pub. 1973 – revised version printed in 1994
  76. Sherwood Anderson
    • pub. 1972 — revised version
  77. North American Indian Reader
    • pub. 1974
  78. Walt Whitman
    • pub. 1974 — revised version
  79. Saul Bellow
    • pub. 1974 — won Nobel Prize one year later; last of the old sail version with a P number
  80. Thomas Jefferson
    • pub. 1975 — first U.S. President added to the series
  81. Chaucer
    • pub. 1975 — revised version
  82. Thomas Hardy
    • pub. 1977
  83. Bernard Shaw
    • pub. 1978 – reprinted as #90
  84. no title
  85. American Literature Survey: Colonial and Federal to 1800
    • four volume set – printed in 1962, but added to the ISBN numbering system in these four spots — the most unknown of the titles, which I only learned about when I found this book for sale
  86. American Literature Survey: The American Romantics, 1800-1860
  87. American Literature Survey: Nation and Region, 1860-1900
  88. American Literature Survey: The Twentieth Century
  89. no title
  90. Bernard Shaw
    • pub. 1977  — first Nobel Prize winner added to the catalog
  91. Tolstoy
    • pub. 1978  —  first title not available in old mass market style
  92. Machiavelli
    • pub. 1979
  93. Oscar Wilde
    • pub. 1981 — revised version
  94. Emerson
    • pub. 1981 — revised version
  95. Conservative Reader
    • pub. 1982
  96. Karl Marx
    • pub. 1983
  97. Kipling
    • pub. 1982
  98. Edmund Wilson
    • pub. 1983
  99. Dickens
    • pub. 1983
  100. 20th Century Russian Reader
    • pub. 1985
  101. Malcolm Cowley
    • pub. 1990 — first book not printed as a mass market
  102. Beat Reader
    • pub. 1992
  103. 19th Century Russian Reader
    • pub. 1993
  104. no title
  105. no title
  106. Nabokov
    • pub. 1993 — revised version
  107. 20th Century Russian Reader
    • pub. 1993 — revised version, including Bulgakov excerpt
  108. no title
  109. Darwin
    • pub. 1993 — last title within old ISBN system
  • Abraham Lincoln
    • pub. 1992 — first title published outside old ISBN system
  • Paul and Jane Bowles
    • pub. 1994
  • Graham Greene
    • pub. 1994 – revised version
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