Book Sets & Why We Love Them

harvard classics

A 1910 liberal arts education!

Do you like book sets?

I’ve been laughing over Josh Hanagarne’s article  at Book Riot, “The Bookseller Who Saved My Collection.”   He  decided  to become a scholar, so he majored in philosophy for a semester and then “gave up immediately after finals.” But he still wanted to appear erudite, so he asked his parents for  a 1910 set of the Harvard Classics for Christmas. He writes,

On Christmas morning, I opened up the two massive boxes and looked down at the dusty, crinkled green spines as a cloud of dust billowed out.

No one was jealous of my gift, but my siblings were philistines, not at all interested in appearing to be serious scholars.

The idea with the 51-volume set was that it contained, according to Dr. Eliot, “A liberal education.” I started looking at the titles on the spines. I even recognized some of the names, like Plato. I had no idea who Benvenuto Cellini was, and I didn’t know what I Promessi Sposi was, but 51 volumes of knowledge!

Better yet, there were 52 weeks in a year, so I’d be done with my liberal education at the rate of slightly less than one book per week.

Well, it didn’t quite work out. He read a few and got bored.  And later when he tried to sell the set, the bookseller refused because he saw Josh hesitating.

I, too, have a weakness for sets.  Some are nice, some were just cheap, and I ‘ve replaced most with paperbacks over the years because I needed scholarly introductions to the books.

d. h. lawrence book club editions 026410

A Lawrence three-pack!

1 The Literary Guild classics.  I worked briefly at a bookstore where women were ghettoized as cashiers.  A charming colleague with a college degree (also stuck as a cashier) persuaded us to join the Literary Guild book club, which offered classics in sets of three.  She emphasized how much fun it was to receive books in the mail (long before Amazon, and she got free books for signing us up) .  I became  fond of these cheesy book club editions, though we must have been out of our minds since we could have bought nicer editions at a discount at the store.  But we were secretly radical:  we didn’t put our money back into a sexist bookstore.

2 Proust’s Remembrance of Things Past.  We were waiting for a Greyhound bus in Iowa City and stopped at The Haunted Bookshop, a used bookstore. I was thrilled to find a musty set of Modern Library editions of Proust.   I eventually replaced them  with a paperback set with D. J. Enright’s corrected translation, but the original Moncrieff  may well have been good enough.

proust set il_570xN.808961634_tfet

Mine didn’t have dust jackets!

3 Trollope’s Palliser books.  I originally read these in mass market paperbacks, but for my second read bought a used set of these Oxford editions.

Oxford pallisers novels set trollope 51lFtqDxc-L._SX258_BO1,204,203,200_

A set of the Pallisers books.

4. The Dickens set.  I bought an almost complete book club set of Dickens (Walter J. Black) when I was a teenager.  The down side?  They have no introductions, so  I later supplemented them with Penguins.  Nowadays these hardbacks (two volumes for each title) are convenient because they have big-ish print.  But I had to lug them home in two trips!  None of us had a car back then.


Thomas Hardy (Heritage editions).  I love these Heritage Book Club hardbacks of five of Thomas Hardy’s most famous novels. They come in boxes and have great illustrations! Here’s a copy of Jude the Obscure.

Thomas Hardy heritage e23cfba15680805062fb890ed8560ae1

A Heritage Book Club “Jude the Obscure.”

6.  The Bronte set.  I really don’t know what got into me.  This illustrated Folio Society set of the Brontes  was cheap and looked very nice in the picture at eBay.  Well, it is nice in a way, but the covers are silk, which wasn’t clear to me, and you have to be careful not to stain them with tea.  The best thing I can say about it is that I finally have an illustrated copy of Villette.

bronte folio society 61eXAuaf5BL._SL500_SX258_BO1,204,203,200_

If only they weren’t silk!

Have any of you gone mad for a set?  Loved it or regretted it?

12 thoughts on “Book Sets & Why We Love Them

  1. The Prousts look very pretty but I really wouldn’t want a set of books with silk covers! I have a beautiful boxed set of hardbacks of the Complete Orwell which is gorgeous – dark blue covers, quality paper etc. I’m a bit scared of reading it, though, in case I mess it up – when I was reading Homage to Catalonia recently, OH made a thick paper sleeve to put round it to protect it! 🙂


  2. I love sets, but sets are dangerous. They take up shelf space and engage you in projects like reading them all. I think I once owned your Palliser set and I had an Orwell set — all gone in various moves. My favorite was 20 or so hardbound volumes of George Eliot. It had all her novels, all (I think) of her non fiction writing and ended with John Walter Cross’ biography of her. Good paper, nice sized print, a joy to read. I finally donated them somewhere.


    • Oh, I love Eliot so much! Yes, sets do take up a lot of room. I go set crazy sometimes. I kept thinking I’d get rid of my Dickens set after I bought Penguins, but I hang on to it. I still like boxed sets when I see them!


  3. I like sets too. My father had sets which got me reading books I’d never have read: in the 1930s and 40s, it was apparently common for “middle brow” (terrible word) publishers to publish inexpensive sets of English classic novels — like that Oxford set. My father bought three or four! so when I was an adolescent and young teenager, there they were, all picked out for me — from Austen to Thackeray into Stevenson. The trouble was these didn’t include more modern books because they were not out of copyright.

    Sets are pretty and I’ll try to buy books I love in the same publishing format even if my bookshelves are so squeezed I often can’t set them prettily in a row. This is true of my 12 Poldark novels. I managed to buy them in the same Macmillan format.


    • Oh, buying the books in the same format is great! I used to have Poldarks with photos of Robin Ellis on the covers. There are much nicer ones now. And I DO have some Pan paperbacks. Yes, those middlebrow sets were very nice and a good way to pick up the classics. When I bought my Dickens set (at 17?) I had access to the “minor” books that at that time weren’t carried by local bookstores. Perhaps some of them weren’t in print in the U.S.? Amazon has really changed our lives in that so much more is accessible. I’ve read almost all of Hardy due to Amazon, and some of his books NEVER appeared in bookstores!


  4. Years ago, before I quit my job to be a stay home mom, I bought a complete OUP set of Dickens in hardback. I have read them over and over. I also have a well loved complete set of Austen in OUP hardbacks with notes and supplementary material by Chapman. And I picked up the Palliser books at a library sale. And then there are the three sets of Tolkein…


    • Oh, I know that OUP set! It is SO nice. Actually I saw one at the Planned Parenthood book sale but couldn’t justify it (plus my husband said no). Yeah, Tolkein, I forgot about him! Really I must read Lord of the Rings again sometime.


  5. Oh, yes, I love sets. I have sets of Hawthorne and Sir Walter Scott and R. L. Stevenson and Washington Irving. I also have a limited edition set of the Harvard Classics. The first gifts my future husband gave me, when we were living in a shared apartment in Boston, sleeping on a mattress on the floor, were a hand painted music box that played Born Free, a typewriter, and an almost complete set of used Dickens. That sealed the deal for me.


  6. The best thing about the Walter Scotts is that I found them in a box under a table at a junk store. It’s a complete set, annotated, not in fine condition, but in good condition, and I bought the whole box for $3.50! One of the best buys I’ve ever made. The Harvard Classics were a dollar a book, $50.00 for the set. I suspect those days of amazing bargains are long gone.


    • Oh, I love the days of finding deals! We do find them sometimes here at the Planned Parenthood Book Sale, but there are no sets for $3.50. Probably more like $50 (which no doubt is still a bargain).


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