This Day In Literary History
On March 10th, 1926, the Book of the Month Club published its first selection through Viking Press.
The Book of the Month Club was a mail order service for book lovers, founded by ad copywriter Harry Scherman and his partners, Max Sackheim and Robert Haas.
They first broke into the mail order book selling business in 1916 with their Little Leather Library, which contained "30 Great Books for $2.98" (about $66 in today's money) - miniature reprints of classic novels "bound in limp Redcroft."
In its first five years, the Little Leather Library sold 40,000 copies. After that, business slowed down, and customers clamored for new additions to their collection of "30 Great Books."
So, Scherman and his partners came up with an idea for a new mail order business, one that would automatically ship a new book to customers once a month for them to review. The customer could choose from the main selection or an alternate selection.
Both selections would be chosen by a panel of judges based on literary merit. If the customer didn't like a particular book after reviewing it for a period of time, he could mail it back and not be charged for it.
The new service was called the Book of the Month Club. To induce customers to join the Club, they would be given a list of available books and invited to chose a few of them for one ridiculously low price.
Then, as part of their membership, the customers would agree to purchase a few books "at regular Club prices" within a certain period of time. The so-called "regular" prices were always higher than those of other booksellers.
The Club published a monthly newsletter that allowed members to send in their own book reviews for others to read. The service would have a lasting impact on the publishing industry and the way books were marketed.
The first selection offered by the Book of the Month Club proved to be a shocker for the Club's 4,000+ members. It was Lolly Willowes, or The Loving Huntsman, the first novel of English writer Sylvia Townsend Warner.
In it, Laura "Lolly" Willowes is a 28-year-old spinster who suffers from the suspicion and disdain with which Edwardian (early 20th century English) society viewed unmarried women.
In Edwardian England, unmarried women couldn't be independent and self-reliant. They couldn't go out and earn their own money to support themselves. Instead, they had to live with relatives and perform thankless chores to earn their keep.
Lolly Willowes faces just such a situation, as she lives with her brother Henry, his wife, and their children. When she finally tires of living a life dedicated to meeting other people's expectations, she rebels in a rather unique way.
She becomes a witch, adopts a black cat, and makes a pact with the Devil to be a self-reliant woman and enjoy a life of peace, quiet, solitude, and independence. Or so she thinks.
The novel is actually a dreamlike Jane Austen-esque dark comedy written in an elegant, lyrical prose style. When Lolly meets a man she thinks is the Devil, she's surprised to find that he's handsome, charming, intelligent, understanding, and a good neighbor!
Lolly Willowes is a clever, darkly funny, metaphorical, existentialist novel of feminist determination that was way ahead of its time. It outraged the members of the fledgling Book of the Month club in 1926 who failed to grasp its metaphors and symbolism.
They saw it as a mockery of Christian family values - the very fabric of proper society - and a glorification of witchcraft, even though the supernatural elements were very understated.
The author, Sylvia Townsend Warner, was a controversial figure herself - she was an openly lesbian, outspoken feminist with an interest and expertise in the occult. Needless to say, she was the object of scorn and gossip in Edwardian England.
Although its first selection shocked and outraged its members, the Book of the Month Club became a huge success. Twenty years after it was founded, the Club had nearly a million members and its stock was traded publicly for the first time.
The Club would later merge with Doubleday and become Bookspan. Its business model would be used by other mail order services, including music and movie clubs, most notably by the Columbia House Music Club.
Quote Of The Day
"Truth has beauty, power, and necessity." - Sylvia Townsend Warner
Today's video features author Janice Radway discussing her book, A Feeling for Books: The Book-of-the-Month Club, Literary Taste, and Middle-Class Desire on CSPAN. Enjoy!