I’ve been quiet on the review front this summer, for which I apologise. The lack of posting wasn’t for want of writing, but just an inability to follow anything through to completion. To mask the symptoms of my mild ennui, I have been researching the Viking Portable Library, a collection of anthology volumes covering a broad range of subjects and topics, and published, in various forms, since 1943. I first encountered the Portables while I was in college, working my way through in a bookstore. What follows is just a little extract of a much larger article that I’m working on chronicling the Portables from their earliest days to their present incarnation (and I’ll explain why the notion of that “present incarnation” is problematic in a moment).
The Viking Portable Library was the idea of American writer and critic Alexander Woollcott, who had seen similar compact volumes in the hands of British troops while reporting from Britain in the opening days of World War II. With a deal for a first volume made with The Viking Press of New York City, he assembled a book entitled As You Were, intending it as a volume that could be easily carried by soldiers as the United States entered its second year in the War in 1943, and contain an assortment of quintessentially American prose and poetry. Although Woollcott died unexpectedly just a little more than a month before publication, the book was a rousing success, going through multiple editions. The editor at Viking, Marshall A. Best, quickly sought to commission more volumes. Despite shortages and restrictions on paper and printing (all World War II-era editions include a note in the colophon indicating that the books conform to wartime standards), the early hardcover editions are remarkably durable (although the dustjackets are often in poor condition when they are present at all). Within a month of the end of the War, there were fifteen volumes in the Viking Portable Library, and a raft of new titles arrived in 1946, by which time there were twenty-seven Portables, including a volume devoted to Woollcott, himself a minor member of the Algonquin Roundtable. By the end of 1947, there were thirty-five Portables.
It took some time for some of the settled standards of the early series to take shape. Marshall Best worked with two other editors: Pascal Covici, Jr., best known as John Steinbeck’s editor and friend, and Malcolm Cowley, who later edited the influential Portable Faulkner (number 18), a book that is sometimes credited with rescuing Faulkner’s literary career from obscurity. The tastes of the three editors varied, and accordingly, so did the books that they pitched. The books were not given numbers until the release of The Portable Carl van Doren (10), and the formal design element of the Viking ship on the spine of the jacket, bearing the book’s number, was not settled on until the release of The Portable Oscar Wilde (16) and the first revised reissue of The Portable Steinbeck (2), from the beginning of 1946.
Dorothy Parker was long the only woman represented both as an editor of The Portable F. Scott Fitzgerald (number 14, incidentally one of the most elusive early Portables, as it went out of print permanently within about five years of its first publication) and as an anthologized subject. The Portable Dorothy Parker (4), indeed, is one of the few of the Viking Portables that has survived through every incarnation of the Library, and currently appears in a deluxe Penguin edition (about which more later). Other women as editors would follow, but it would not be until the 1990s before another woman was the subject of an anthology (qv.), and none has ever again been both subject and editor.
In their first incarnation, the Portables were issued as hardcovers with dustjackets. Some volumes featured inked text block edges, the colour of which matched the dustjackets. A few early volumes even included sewn-in ribbon bookmarks and gilt. In general terms of content, the Viking Portables would follow the line of a mostly-American “greats” curriculum, albeit an idiosyncratic and uniquely positioned one. Many of the more esoteric or ephemeral early volumes were gradually weeded out of the list, leaving the largely American list of authors intact. However, in 1949, a series of reproductions, published by the Book Society of New York, were released on the market, and would continue to appear until 1952. Typically, the Book Society volumes, all of which were published “by arrangement with The Viking Press,” were similarly-sized hardcover volumes, in slipcases and, in most cases, a glassine wrapper. I have not been able to find any information about this series, but I keep ordering copies of volumes that I don’t have, in hopes that someone has left a flyer or something tucked between the pages. As far as I can tell from second-hand book sites, about thirty-five of the Indispensable series were issued, and these include some of the less-common early volumes, including the highly collectable F. Scott Fitzgerald volume. Although probably not inherently valuable, as with most book club editions, the Indispensables represent an interesting side-note to the history of the Viking Portable Library.
The later 1950s saw a continuation of releases in the Viking Portable Library in hardcover, albeit at a considerably diminished rate. The final volume published during the 1950s, The Portable Greek Historians (Number 65, published 1959) was the last one of the original run to appear in the original hardcover format. The 1950s were more notable for the first appearance of paperbound editions of some of the Portables, none of which had previously appeared in paperback. The paperbound editions occupied roughly the same dimensions as the hardcovers, but they had heavy paper covers and were generally slightly thicker. Although many of the first series of hardcovers made the transition to paperbound format, a significant number of volumes went out of print, including a number of authors to whom Viking had lost the publishing rights, but also some of the more esoteric early volumes, and, perhaps most ironically, both As You Were (1) and the Portable Alexander Woollcott (17) were out of print by this time.
In the 1960s, the drought of new Portables was offset by the vast numbers of reprints of existing editions. Apart from the American Literature Survey, a four-volume set which anthologised American literary writing from early colonial days up to the 1950s, there were only three new Portables in the whole decade. These were the Portable Prescott (Number 66), the Portable Hakluyt’s Voyages (67) (these two being some of the least-known and most uncommon of all the Portables), and finally in 1969, the Portable Stephen Crane (68). By the late 1960s, Viking had also transitioned to a second design modification for the paperback Portables, with new cover art printed on smooth-finished heavy cardstock covers (cover art had periodically changed previously on both paperbound and hardbound editions).
In 1971, new Portables continued to appear, with Joseph Campbell’s second editorial foray in the series in the Portable Jung (Number 70): Campbell’s first turn as editor had been the Portable Arabian Nights (59) nearly twenty years before. New volumes began to appear at a rate of one per year, beginning with the Portable Arthur Miller (71)in 1972, followed by the Portable Graham Greene (75) and the Portable Saul Bellow (79). Miller, Greene, and Bellow were all Viking authors, naturally. These new volumes were issued first in hardcovers, although in a slightly larger format than the 1940s and 1950s hardcovers, and all appear to have been issued with either dustjackets which matched the cover boards beneath, or mylar covers (in the case of the Bellow).
In 1975 the Portables underwent their most radical change to date, when Viking was acquired by Penguin Books. The new Viking Penguin group continued publication of new volumes of the Viking Portable Library, under the Viking imprint in hardcovers, and as Penguins in paperback. Until 1990, the hardcover editions would be uniform, with a parchment-coloured dustjacket over cloth and boards. It would take the paperbacks a few more years to catch up, although the first uniform editions with wrap-around photo covers would appear at the very end of the 1970s. All then in-print editions were republished in this format, which meant that, once again, familiar earlier volumes would disappear, including long-time favourites like the Portable Johnson & Boswell (Number 34) and the Portable Veblen (36). New volumes of the 1980s focused partly on British authors, including Kipling, Dickens, and Thomas Hardy.
The string of new titles ended in 1985, with the Portable 20th Century Russian Reader, numbered as the 100th Portable, and the first of two outright replacements for the old Portable Russian Reader (Number 23), originally published in 1946. The selections are obviously different, and it wasn’t until the Portable 19th Century Russian Reader appeared, eight years later and in a different format, that the content of the earlier volume was more or less fully replaced. A further hardcover volume collected the work of original series editor Malcolm Cowley in Portable form in 1990, although this hardcover was slightly larger than the previous Viking Penguin editions of the 1980s. A similarly-sized volume, The Portable Beat Reader, appeared two years later, although it abandoned the format of the earlier hardcovers.
Both of these volumes’ appearances in hardcover preceded their eventual emergence in the new livery of the Viking Portable Library in the 1990s. White spines with simple text, and large, bold author photos on the whole of the front cover dominated these new editions of the 1990s. The books themselves were no longer in the “portable” size either, having swelled from the mass market size of the original hardcovers and nearly all subsequent versions to a more conventional trade paperback size. In keeping with these changes, the ISBN sequence which had preserved the old Viking number was altered as well, meaning that after the release of the Portable Darwin (Number 109) in 1993, the series was untethered from its roots by at least one key measure. Although many of the photo cover reprints once again appeared in the white-spined editions, as many as a quarter were replaced by new editions in the 1990s. This gradual cull of many of the older, classic Viking Portables seems to have been indicative not only of the changing interests of the editors at Penguin, but of a desire to modernise the range. For a series that often found its way into college classrooms, this perhaps made some sense, but the gradual removal of some of the cornerstone volumes, many of which had been in print for over 40 years, seems to me to have been short-sighted.
The final iteration (to date) of the Viking Portable Library is, in many ways, not a continuation of the series at all. Almost all references to the origins of the series have been expunged, and most of the volumes have been re-edited, or completely revised. The Portable Shakespeare, for example, contains markedly different content from the reader-sourced original, as edited by Marshall Best in 1945. Only the Portable Steinbeck and the Deluxe Portable Dorothy Parker appear to fully hearken back to the classic Portables. Furthermore, in the past fourteen years, only thirty-two volumes have been issued, including the suitably grand Portable Dorothy Parker, issued as a “Deluxe Edition,” and the volume which doesn’t appear to have ever actually been released, the Portable Petrarch, which remains a minor mystery (it turns up in several WorldCat listings, but I have yet to encounter any mention of a physical copy in the real world). That low total overall number is shocking compared to previous editions, although some of the white-spined editions remain available new from online sources even at this late date. And although there are some welcome new additions to the Portable line, including Portable volumes of John Adams, Benjamin Franklin, Charles Chesnutt, Edith Wharton, and Frederick Douglass, overall the latest iteration does not feel, at least to this reader, as though it is much in keeping with the spirit of the original series. While the new volumes are welcome, the series in many ways lacks both the idiosyncracy and the depth which gave it such appeal. Other readers may take issue with that view, of course, and in the end, the change in the series may be nothing more than a change in the book market overall. Tempus fugit.
It’s funny to think of the difference between the days of the Second World War and now. As You Were was intended as a book to remind the soldiers of what they were fighting for. It was meant to be read aloud in moments of tranquility, a pocket capsule of the culture they were risking their lives to defend. The world of the present day is a very different place from that of the 1940s, one in which ambiguity and relativism have been worked into almost every level of public discourse and intellectual endeavour (if anything in the 21st century can be said to be intellectual) has been devalued, even demeaned, by the forces of a pseudo-culture which constantly demands newer, faster, greater sensation and gratification. There are greater equalities and better understandings of not only the traditional inheritors of history, but those whose contributions (women, non-Anglo-Saxons, et cetera) have often been overlooked, and it is a good thing that some steps have been taken to redress that historical imbalance. This is true even if the forces of the regressives, of those who were always going to be afraid of something, are fighting a rear-guard action against greater inclusiveness. In such a world, the academic certainties of the past are, by comparison, comforting and reassuring. Academia has always been more liberal than society, and now, as always, it points the way forward, even while looking in the past.
By the Numbers:
Viking Portable Library Volumes Published, by Subject (Includes Revisions and New Editions of Previously Published Authors, 1943-2017): 151*
Viking Portable Library Volumes Published, by Format*
- Original Hardcover Editions (1943-1959): 65
- Indispensable Library Reprints (1949-1952): 36
- Viking Paperbound Editions, All Formats (1952-1975): 77
- New Viking Hardcover Editions (1971-1975): 8
- Viking Penguin Hardcover Editions (1975-1990): 19
- Penguin 1st Generation Paperbound (1975-1979): 31**
- Penguin 2nd Generation Photocover Paperbound (1980-1990): 60
- Random House Bargain Hardcover Reissues (Mid-1980s): 16
- Penguin 3rd Generation White Spine Editions (1993-2000): 61
- Penguin 4th Generation Black Spine Editions (2003- ? ): 31
- Penguin Deluxe Editions: 1
Total Variations, All Versions: 445
* My data is compiled from a variety of sources. I have searched a number of online booksellers and library catalogues, including the WorldCat online library database, to identify as many of these books as I can in their various guises. I have compiled this data in a large and detailed (some might say “obsessive”) spreadsheet. The numbers given are probably not exact, but for most versions represent my best assessment as to the number of titles produced. Coveney’s list from Firsts (1992) is an excellent place to start trying to get to grips with the series, but is now 25 years out of date. Any errors, however, remain my own, and if readers see something that appears to be blatantly wrong, I welcome any useful criticism.
** Due to the 1st, 2nd, and 3rd generations of the Penguin paperbacks frequently using the same ISBNs, and with the wide variety of publication and reprint dates for many of the Portables, it is not too surprising to find that it’s difficult to get a good number for first Penguin versions of the Viking Portable Library, the pre photo-cover series. I therefore consider this number to be provisional, and likely to rise as my research progresses, but having only seen a handful of the 1975-79 versions in person, I simply can’t say a lot conclusively about them, overwhelmed as they were by a decade of dominance of the photo-cover editions.
Brief Annotated Bibliography
Beck, Erik. “For Love of Books: The Viking Portable Library.” Website: https://nighthawknews.wordpress.com/2010/07/09/for-love-of-books-the-viking-portable-library/, July 9, 2010. Last Accessed: September 20, 2017.
- A thorough personal account of building a collection of the Viking Portable Library, with a list of titles that varies somewhat from Coveney’s (qv).
Coveney, Peter. “Fifty Years of Portables: The Viking Portable Library.” Firsts: Collecting Modern First Editions, Vol. 2 No. 9, September, 1992, p. 14-22.
- A remarkably useful survey with some amazing photographs (the window full of 1940s & 1950s-era hardcover Portables is near madness-inducing to a collector). You can still order this back issue directly from Firsts magazine.
Howell, Webb. “As You Were: A Short History of the Viking Portable Library.” Website: https://www.abebooks.com/books/rarebooks/Avid-Collector/May07/viking-portables.shtml, May, 2007. Last Accessed: September 20, 2017.
Kinsella, Bridget. “Viking Portable: Still Carried away after 50 Years.” Publishers Weekly, May 31, 1993, p. 19.
- Source for the claim of the best-seller status within the Viking Portable Library of the Portable Nietzsche, which at the time of publication was said to have sold 650,000 copies.
No Author. “Obituaries: Marshall A. Best, 81, Editor at Viking Books.” The New York Times, March 16, 1982.