The grocer as bookseller
Whenever I pass by the dim bookshelves in my "library annex," my glance is always drawn to a certain four-volume set of books published in 1892. These massive nine- by twelve-inch volumes are titled Character Sketches of Romance Fiction and [quoteright]the
Drama by E. Cobham Brewer, and are subtitled "A Revised American Edition of the Reader's Handbook."1 The work is profusely illustrated, the frontispiece of each volume being a colored lithograph and all the interior illustrations being full page. But the feature of this work that always gives me pause is the fact that the last volume is unbound!
Each volume in the set consists of 17 parts with an identical cover design. The price of each part was 25¢; since there were 68 parts in all, the set originally cost $17. The publisher's notice warned that "No subscriber's name is received for less than the entire set, and no order can be cancelled after acceptance... The parts are payable only as delivered, the carrier not being permitted to receive money in advance, nor to leave parts on credit." Since the "carrier" was probably a boy who delivered weekly magazines, it is likely that the subscriber received and paid for his set over a period of 68 weeks - nearly a year and a third. For some unknown reason, he failed to have the last volume bound.
This set is the earliest example in my library of a phenomenon which seems to surface periodically in the publishing world: the encyclopedia that is sold like a magazine. The second example in my collection appeared in 1938-9. Titled The Popular Educator, it attempted, in 54 issues of 92 pages each, to provide "the essentials of a liberal education in a comprehensive series of easy sets of lectures." Fifty-seven different subjects were covered, a typical issue touching on thirty or forty of them. Subjects such as archaeology, mathematics and economics received a full 52 lectures. Mnemonics rated 8 lectures and typewriting only 6, but "eurhythmics" got 11. Evidently the first year of The Popular Educator was a success, because a second and third year followed -- both consisting of excerpts and digests of notable works of literature.
At the end of the 1960's this idea really flourished, as Marshall Cavendish Ltd. exported three different sets to the US. The first of these was Mind Alive ("The magazine that grows into an encyclopedia") in 120 parts, distributed by subscription. Its content was divided into seven headings: Geography, Biology, Man and Medicine, Ideas, Physical Science, The Arts, and History. It called itself "the first illustrated encyclopedia in magazine form ever published in the United States" - a clear error, since The Popular Educator had preceded it by three decades. The subscription was $38.35 a year, so the full unbound set came to $88.50; with the cost of slip-in binders, the total was $111. I wonder how many subscribers realized just how much their encyclopedia was going to cost.
The other two Cavendish sets were distributed through newsstands and supermarkets. The Age of Discovery was simply a normal, rather sketchy encyclopedia. The first issue, for example, covered subjects from Abolitionist to Adhesives. But buying all 112 parts and adding binders ran $116 - for a second-rate encyclopedia! The Story of Life was more specialized; characterized as "The Encyclopedia of the Human Mind and Body," it was carried on supermarket shelves for 105 weeks at 75¢ per issue. With binders, its total price came to $103.25. Despite a strong marketing effort, huge stacks of it remained on grocer's shelves.
Another British firm, Purnell Inc, brought out Man, Myth and Magic in 1970, "an illustrated encyclopedia of the supernatural." Each issue cost 95¢, but one got quite a few more pages than with the Cavendish sets. However, if one waited for a while one could obtain the entire set, permanently bound, at a substantial discount over the newsstand price.
For a time, at least, these magazine-encyclopedias seem to have disappeared in the United States. But they are still going strong in Britain. During a recent visit to London I counted random copies of five different sets on a used book dealer's shelves. So don't be surprised when you see a new one pop up at your local supermarket.
1. See "A Brewer of Miracles" by John Cumming in THE BPHORIZER, April 1982, page 5.
Addendum to Last Month's Article: I recently discussed the mystery of the "missing" December, 1941, issue of Scribner's Commentator with a fellow polymath, and he assured me that my supposition that there were two different versions of that issue was correct. He recalled that Edward C. Weekes, former editor of The Atlantic Monthly once stated that one of his prized possessions was a copy of the suppressed issue. As I had conjectured, the printer made his run before Pearl Harbor, but Scribner's then decided to destroy all but a very few copies and order a "revised" version. I'd still love to see the original!
Polyphilprogenitor Paul Healy lives in Walnut Creek, CA, where he polishes his orrery while surrounded by cans of movie film and a mountain of magazines.
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