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The Cost of a Classical Education

June 22, 2009

How much does an education cost? What does an education consist of? Let’s skip formal education for now, because calculating that cost is way too complex for me. Let’s look at it from the cost of books alone. Granted, books are not the only, and not always the best, way to get an education, but in most cultures today, they are still a central part of the education system.

What books to read? The concept of a Western Canon has been hotly debated in academia over the last several decades, coming under attack from multiple angles and interest groups. Although I find the academic debate interesting (when I can understand it…I’m not even an under grad, let alone anyone who could keep up with the professors), I’m more interested in how the concept of a Western Canon has been shaped for the layman.

In music, the arts, and theatre, public institutions and broadcasters have done more to shape the canon than books. Typically, in the case of literature, this has been through publisher ‘classic’ imprints.

I don’t want to put down libraries or university reading lists, or any other source for the classics, but when I think ‘classic’, I think Penguin Classics, or Bantam Classics, or the Everyman’s Library.

Most of these imprints are less than 8 decades old. Which isn’t much, considering the 500-year span of printing. Yet many have captured a greater audience than many University presses that are far older and more respected as a source for what can be considered truly classic, truly culturally indispensible.

I started out looking at these imprints with a simple premise: how much would it cost to buy an entire series? How many books are in the series? How long would it take you to read an entire series? What would you gain?

Let’s look at the cost of the series first. The table below represents some startling numbers.

Imprint Total Cost Number of Titles Average Price
Penguin Classics $16,988.24 966 17.59
Penguin 20th Century Classics $6,652.77 383 17.37
Penguin Modern Classics $6,008.10 356 16.88
Penguin Great Ideas $599.40 60 9.99
Penguin Boys Adventure $119.88 12 9.99
Penguin Gothic Reds $99.90 10 9.99
Penguin Great Loves $199.80 20 9.99
Signet Classics $2,474.05 295 8.39
Dover Thrift Editions $1,445.35 504 2.87
New York Review Books $3,370.60 222 15.18
Everyman’s Library $8,547.85 429 19.93
Modern Library $9,704.55 615 15.78
New Canadian Library $1,592.09 119 13.38
Totals $57,802.58 3991 12.87

Those are some impressive numbers. Here’s how I arrived at them.

  • I basically ‘screen-scraped’ the publisher’s web site: either their complete search results or a PDF download
  • I eliminated duplicates, and chose either the most recent item or the highest-priced item (in the case of The Modern Library and Everyman’s Library, where collectibility influences sales more than the other imprints, which are primarily trade paperbacks, not hardcover editions)
  • I eliminated any editions offered for electronic sale (except a few items in The Modern Library, which weren’t available in dead tree editions)
  • No out-of-print editions; only the current stock-list
  • When available, I chose Canadian stocklists and prices (I am, after all, Canadian…however, I listed out New York Review Books that had no Canadian rights)
  • These lists were compiled in Spring 2009, and haven’t been updated to reflect new releases.

This isn’t very scientific. Nor is my list entirely fair. I couldn’t get a complete list of Bantam Classics, and chose not to list Harvard’s Loeb or I Tatti imprints (even though I should have). Penguin’s Great Mind series made the list, even though it’s very slight (only 60 titles, which are entirely reprinted from the other Penguin imprints in the list).

But the numbers are still very interesting. At least 8 imprints (Penguin Classics, Penguin 20th Century Classics, Penguin Modern Classics, Penguin Great Ideas, Penguin Boys Adventure, Penguin Gothic Reds, Penguin Great Loves, and Signet Classics) are controlled by a single publishing firm, which is a huge concentration of the market, and an enormous amount of final totals above ($33,142.14 in cost and 2102 titles).

In a strictly numbers game:

  • Dover Thrift Editions has the most titles for the least price
  • Penguin Classics has the greatest number of titles
  • Everyman’s Library has the greatest average cost per title
  • New York Review Books offers the least titles for the greatest average cost

The numbers do not tell the whole story. Each imprint offers a greatly different set of authors and titles (although there is intense overlap between them all). I’ll give a brief (and biased) description of each publisher.

Penguin Classics

The big daddy. PC has been around for just over 60 years, and has published thousands of titles. The breadth and depth of authors in this series is hard to match.

Penguin 20th Century and Modern Classics

Both these series tend to cover the same ground: they offer books that have become perennial best-sellers or have attained ‘classic’ status, but have not yet stood the test of time. Penguin tends to add books to these imprints before rotating them into Penguin Classics proper.

Penguin Great Ideas

You could say that this is really just shrewd marketing tactics, but I’m very fond of this series. It offers excerpts from Penguin’s other classics series in affordable paperback editions, with no editorials or introductions; just the text itself.

Signet Classics

These are the books I read in high school, and from what I’ve seen, are targeted at primary and secondary students. They offer study guide material, and introductions targeted to that audience.

Dover Thrift Editions

Dover is a publisher that reprints public domain works, either in facsimile or re-typeset. The Thrift Edition line offers an enormous selection of classics in trade editions that are slim and cheap, printed on paper that’s almost newsprint. For all that, the DTE line is impressive, choosing authors that are considered part of the canon, but reprinting work that other classic imprints won’t. When combined with another classics line, DTE brings an impressive depth of subject matter to the table.

New York Review Books

A recent (relatively speaking) entry, NYRB focusses on reprinting classics people have forgotten, translating important foreign authors, and choosing interesting works from the whole of the 20th century. Introduced by popular authors, these books complement most of the other imprints.

Everyman’s and Modern Library

Both these imprints reprint classics in attractive hardcover editions, with new translations and introductions. Both are targeted at the average reader who wants to be well-read and keep the books they’ve read, either for collectibility or prestige. The Modern Library, in particular, is highly collectible in the antiquarian market.

What don’t these series include?

The only 2 series that deals with current events, science, and cooking are the New York Review Books and The Modern Library. Almost every other series either ignores these subjects or has a token book, here or there.

Dover Thrift Editions, and both the Everyman and Modern Libraries are overflowing with anthologies and books of quotations, absent from all other series aside from works by a single author (Meditations by Marcus Aurelius, for instance).

Shakespeare is surprisingly absent from Penguin Classics. Actually, Penguin decided from the start that Shakespeare warranted an entire separate imprint all to himself.

Another notable absence: the Bible, in any translation. Highly notable in that almost every other living religion has it’s central holy text represented in one, and sometimes most of the above imprints. The Torah is also dubiously absent.

Almost no children’s books or mythology\folklore. This, I suspect, has more to do with marketing than anything else. Children tend to be rough on their books. The mythology\folklore that is included is almost entirely European, with almost no representation for Native Americans or indigenous populations.

What can’t these series include?

Copyright restrictions hover over these imprints like a cloud (aside from Dover Thrift Editions, which have skirted the issue entirely).

As a result, there’s almost no imaginative literature in any of the series, although that’s changing. Many of the series have a reasonable selection of horror and gothic titles, but most have no fantasy, science fiction, or other genre works (mystery, western, and dare I say it? romance).

Much of the most important 20th century philosophy, cultural theory, media studies, and in general, the ‘soft’ sciences, also hasn’t made it into these imprints either. Investigative journalism is also absent.

What else is available?

I haven’t looked at any of the University presses, or Bantam Classics. Likewise, I’ve skipped imprints that are national in scope (update: I did add The New Canadian Library, and may add The Library of America, if I ever free up the space).


I’m deeply interested in producing a complete list from all the imprints, but I think that would take too much work.

In general, I doubt anyone would ever have the time to read any of these imprints in their entirety. I doubt that’s the point. And really, as large as the Penguin Classics line is, it’s only a small fraction of the good material that’s being produced every day.

6 Comments leave one →
  1. June 23, 2009 3:31 pm

    To be fair—we offer a 50% discount on NYRB Classics orders if you’re willing to commit to a big purchase. You could have the 1st 200 books for about $1,500. Scroll down on this page. (and thanks for including us in your roundup).

    • ramblebramble permalink
      June 23, 2009 7:54 pm

      Thanks for the note, Sarah. I should have been more clear…I meant if you were purchasing individually, and didn’t take bulk purchases or discounts into consideration.

  2. Judith Baumel permalink
    June 23, 2009 8:47 pm

    Very interesting. I’m wondering why you didn’t include Oxford World Classics. I find them well edited, with good notes and intros, inexpensive and easy on the eye.

    • ramblebramble permalink
      June 23, 2009 11:52 pm

      It took quite a while to get together the spreadsheet that I did, for a few reasons: most of the publishers don’t actually have consolidated information for a complete series, so I had to do a lot of grunt work stripping saved web pages to get that list; I only covered the series I was aware of; and some publishers (Bantam) have a very confusing website, and I couldn’t get accurate information.

      I’m glad you like the article. I’m just looking into OWC now, and it may make the list!

      • Judith Baumel permalink
        June 24, 2009 1:21 am

        Thanks for all the work you did–it’s very interesting to consider the price per volume and the comprehensiveness for each series. Not to mention the cost of any entire set vs. the cost of four years of college in the United States. I’m an English professor. I’m not recommending switching four years of higher ed for a complete set of “the (dead white male) canon”; I’m just thinking about the cost/benefit ratio.

  3. June 23, 2009 9:16 pm

    Interesting analysis, especially in light of my ongoing Everymans vs. Modern Library indecision — thanks!

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