One of the high points of my yearly calendar arrived last weekend: the fall Friends of the Seattle Public Library book sale, held in a giant warehouse of a building on Sand Point Way. It's the kind of thing that, at this point in my book-crammed life, could be so painful I ought to just avoid it: a roomful of cheap books for the taking, when I have no more room for books in my house (and more books than I will ever have time to read). But I've found a way to make it work: my friend Grant has opened Under the Volcano, an English-language used bookstore in Mexico City (the only one in Mexico City). Grant needs books, and I need (almost medically) a way to buy books without keeping them. For the last couple of years, I've elbowed my way through the aisles there alongside all the hired guns with their bar-code reading phone apps (and some fellow readers), and it's been unambiguously delicious.
I think I came away with a pretty good selection for him this year--and just a handful for myself!--but the most interesting find for me was a certain edition of paperback I'd never seen before that kept coming up. They were books I was interested in already, but the covers drew my eye too: I'd never seen them before, and I was struck by their style. They were sturdy, lovely, and had the surprising name on the spine of "Time, Inc." Here are the ones I took home (with apologies for the lousy photo):
Nice! What you can't tell from the photo is that the plastic-coated covers are very stiff, the art extends around to the back, where there's no text at all, and the inside front and back covers are in a solid, muted matte color, different for each book, that's quite lovely itself. According to the title pages, the books are "Time Reading Program Special Editions," but there's no further explanation of what that is. Some have custom introductions (The Day of the Locust's is by Budd Schulberg (!); The Lost Weekend's is by Dr. Selden R. Bacon, the director of the Rutgers Center for Alcohol Studies), and they each have an "Editor's Preface" signed, in the anonymously authoritative way Time enjoyed, by "The Editors of Time."
What was the Time Reading Program? Wikipedia, of course, has an answer: the books were reprints, chosen by Time's book reviewer Max Gissen, that were sent monthly to subscribers (of the program, not the magazine) between 1962 and 1966. And I'm not the only one who thought they were pretty: apparently they won lots of design awards. (Each book credits its cover artist: Jerome Miller for The Lost Weekend, Bill Berry (pre-R.E.M.?) for The Day of the Locust, and Leo and Dianne Dillon for Reveille in Washington. I've already shipped The Treasure of the Sierra Madre to Grant, so I can't tell you that one.) The wiki has a list of books in the series, but it's spotty--only two of these four are on it. The Neglected Books site (a blog after my own heart) has a more extensive list, but it's not complete either. They say there were almost 100 books published, but list only 52 (and again, only two of mine). But Leggman's Time-Life Library: A Compendium of Time-Life Books Information (oh, Internet, how I love and am awed by thee), while not claiming to be exhaustive, lists 109 by my finger count (including all four above), which I'll take to be authoritative for now.
If I were a collector (I'm not, I'm not, I'm really trying not to be!), I have to say this would be a pretty appealing place to start: a fascinating-looking collection, a strong but varied design sense from a specific historical moment, and long-lasting construction. The better-known books on the list are smartly chosen enough (Muriel Spark and Richard Hughes in the house!) that they make me curious about the lesser-known ones, which may have been well-known then but are certainly neglected now. And equally appealing: based on the prices of the four above on Amazon, they appear to be available dirt cheap. You might be able to collect the whole shebang (postage included!) for about the same price as a first edition of 84, Charing Cross Road, which, yes, I just recently looked up and found was too rich for me...