If you love beauty, reading, and old-fashioned charm/elegance, then you likely have dreamed of having your own beautiful library one day. I’ve wanted a collection of awesome, wonderful books that would stretch from floor to ceiling in a room of my house (preferably a tower room) since I first learned to read. It’s been a dream of mine throughout my life, even as my tastes have grown or changed.
However, I’ve also been horribly disappointed by the quality of books I’ve owned. Having taken many literature classes in college, I bought used copies of the books I would need for that semester. Functionally, this worked out fine, but it was aesthetically taxing to see all the crummy paperbacks on my bookshelves. After college, I wanted to keep some of the books for the contents, but having to look at their ugliness made me not want to read anything on the same shelf as them. Then there are the struggles of actually reading paperback books: the books resist being opened all the way and are also hard to hold open, so reading them is uncomfortable for me; the spines crack while you read them, so they start looking unappealing partway through the first reading; and worst of all is that they’re liable to have chunks of pages fall out when the glue gets dried out.
What I want for my personal library now is books that are decent quality and a delight to look at and feel. I also want to focus on keeping the costs reasonable, so I’m working on collecting what I’m going to call “semi-fine” editions: books that are a step or two above the standard hardback, trade paperback, or regular paperback versions.
This post is not a guide into the world of fine presses, like Easton Press or the Folio Society. Many internet threads have commentors who say to just buy used editions from those presses instead of buying these “semi-fine” editions. You can make that decision for yourself. I am not a serious book collector, so spending my time scouring for good deals on the limited books I’d want is not how I want to employ myself.
Conditions for inclusion on this list:
- price in the ballpark of $25 USD per book
- currently available for sale
Before we get started, here are a few more of my biases.
- A sewn binding is my standard. Glued binding are inferior.
- I hate dust jackets.
- I don’t like white paper; I prefer cream paper for reading.
- I really like multiple-novels-in-one-book, collections, and omnibus editions. I think that they save space vs. having all the collected contents separately bound, and they makes things simpler. Some omnibus editions are terrible — print that’s too small to read normally, pages that are too thin — but on the whole I’m in favor of them.
- I’m unqualified to say if paper is acid-free or not, so I’ve made no mention of that concern below. (Paper that isn’t acid-free yellows and turns brittle with age, sometimes as soon as after a year or two. Archival quality paper is acid-free.)
If you want to learn more about how to spot the differences between glued bindings and sewn bindings, you can watch the video below:
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Barnes and Noble Collectible Editions (hardcovers only)
(Bonded) leather covers, ribbon bookmarks, gilding on all three page edges (sometimes silver, sometimes gold, very occasionally something different)
- They have books beyond the traditional fairy tales, mythology, and 19th-and-early-20th century classics. (The Ultimate Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams, Michael Crichton’s Jurassic Park/The Lost World, the first three novels of The Vampire Chronicles by Anne Rice, the US Constitution, etc.)
- Some of the books have introductions.
- Sewn bindings
- They have lots of multi-novel/omnibus editions and a few genre collections.
- Many of the books have internal illustrations (black and white or colored) and feature colored plates.
- Amazing, stand-out editions include: Aesop’s Illustrated Fables, The Arabian Nights (Richard Burton translation, though…), The Chronicles of Narnia by C.S. Lewis (out of print), and Dante’s The Divine Comedy (Longfellow translation, 135 full-page reproductions of Doré’s engravings).
- These books come in shrink wrap, so the price/sale stickers won’t damage the gilding on the covers, and they hopefully won’t get dirty in shipping. In the stores, there are often unwrapped copies with the others so you can see inside the books.
- If you’re collecting Canterbury Classics (see below), then these will fit nicely together on your bookshelf, as the books from both lines have very similar exterior dimensions. (Barnes and Noble Collectible Editions are a smidgen taller.)
- Over 50 books in the catalog. (It’s very hard to get an accurate count of these since the site includes the smaller, flexi-bound volumes in the collectible editions category and some of the hardback volumes go in and out of print.)
The Secret Garden at 1:59 is not part of the line I’m focusing on. I think that it’s part of the $10 children’s chapter books by Barnes and Noble, which are different sizes from the “adult bindings.”
- Very few copies have annotations (the only one I’m aware of having any extra/scholarly content is H.P. Lovecraft: The Complete Fictions). This makes me feel that their older texts like the Complete Shakespeare or Dante’s Divine Comedy will be reference bricks instead of reading copies.
- The books are pretty large, ~ 6.25 x 9.40 in (~15.8 x 23.9 cm). It’s not comfortable to read from these while snuggled in bed, unless you read on your stomach and can lay them flat.
- Barnes and Noble change the covers on these fairly often, but the inner text block is apparently identical between versions. I would be worried to buy online in case I got a cover I hadn’t wanted.
- Their editions of works that were not originally published in English use old, pre-1923 translations that are generally considered to be inferior to more modern translations. It is also very hard to find information about the translations used online. (I’ve done my best to fill in what I know here.)
- They’re a Barnes and Noble exclusive line, so people outside the US can’t see the books in person before ordering online.
- I’ve seen people online complain about these books having microprint issues. Honestly, it varies. The Complete Shakespeare is hard to read, and the print in Jane Austen: Seven Novels is unpleasantly small, but I don’t find any difficulty reading the Complete Sherlock Holmes. Aesop’s Illustrated Fables has very generous sized print and lots of pleasing white space. The Ultimate Hitchhiker ‘s Guide to the Galaxy has a great, readable font size.
- The children’s picture books — The Complete Tales of Winnie the Pooh (Accurately named, as it only contains the first two Pooh books; it doesn’t include the two books of poetry A.A. Milne wrote that feature Pooh.), The Complete Adventures of Curious George (It’s not complete at all, even if they were just including the original stories by H.A. and Margaret Rey. Very confusing.), The Complete Peter Rabbit by Beatrix Potter (only complaint I have here is that I don’t like the name of the collection), and A Madeline Treasury by Ludwig Bemelmans (The description says it’s her complete adventures, but I haven’t checked up on that.) — are all physically taller and wider than the “adult bindings” in the line, so they look like they’re from a separate collection.
- Some reviewers have complained about OCR errors or typos. I haven’t run across any myself, though.
- Some of the front covers include a sticker in the design. Sometimes the stickers are recessed, which is okay, but sometimes they are non-recessed.
- Some editions to be careful about include: Jules Verne: Seven Novels (crummy translations, and the book block seems to like to separate from the covers during shipping), Michael Crichton’s Jurassic Park/The Lost World (The red ink on the cover can smear into the white.), and The Iliad and the Odyssey (which uses the Samuel Butler prose translation).
- The biggest con for me is that the line is inconsistent with itself. Some are fantastic, and some are just not good. If you want to actually read your pretty books instead of just using them as shelf candy, it makes buying something from this line complicated.
Canterbury Classics (Leather-bound Classics)
(Bonded) leather covers, ribbon bookmarks, gold gilding on all three page edges
- They publish some multi-novel editions, as well as genre collections (Horror, Westerns, and Science Fiction).
- Their editions have introductions.
- Sewn bindings
- Hans Christian Andersen’s Complete Fairy Tales has the recently discovered story “The Tallow Candle.”
- If you’re collecting Barnes and Noble Collectible Editions (see above), then these will fit nicely together on your bookshelf, as the books from both lines have very similar exterior dimensions. (Canterbury Classics are just a smidgen shorter.)
- Only 25 books in their catalog so far
- They’re sticking pretty closely to “classics,” besides their genre collections, US Constitution, and Art of War.
- The Iliad and the Odyssey uses the Samuel Butler prose translation.
- The books are pretty large, ~ 6.25 x 9.3 in (~15.8 x 23.6 cm). It’s not comfortable to read from these while snuggled in bed, unless you read on your stomach and can lay them flat.
- The font size varies between books. (I’ve noticed that Hans Christian Andersen’s Complete Fairy Tales and H.G. Wells: Six Novels have smaller-than-medium text, but it’s not yet microprint.)
- The cover/spine designs of the books are a bit inconsistent. You can see from their catalog that some have lovely covers, and some are plain and look a bit clip-art-y. For me, the annoying thing is that their spine design isn’t always the best. The spines are the plainest part of the editions I’ve seen.
- No interior illustrations
Knickerbocker Classics (slipcase editions)
Cloth covers, ribbon bookmarks, no special page edges
- The books come in very sturdy slipcases.
- Sewn bindings
- They publish mostly omnibus editions in their hardcover, slipcase line.
- The slipcase editions have introductions and other extras, like suggested reading, chronologies of the author’s life, etc.
- The slipcases feature the author’s signature on the “front cover,” and there is a portrait of the author as the frontispiece of most of their books. I think those are nice details.
- Some of the books are illustrated.
- The cloth Knickerbocker Classics uses feels satiny and smooth, unlike any book-cloth I’ve felt before. It’s nice to touch. Also, the words/designs on the covers are integrated into the fabric, not printed on top as a separate layer.
- There are only 15 “slipcase books” in their catalog.
- It is hard to determine on the website which books are one of their bigger, slipcase editions and which are part of the smaller, flexible classics line. I had to click on each book and scan for “paperback” or “hardback” to distinguish between them for sure.
- These are very large, very heavy books, measuring ~ 6.75 x 9.5 in (~17.1 x 24.1 cm). It’s not comfortable to read from these while snuggled in bed, unless you read on your stomach and can lay them flat.
- The Iliad and the Odyssey uses the Samuel Butler prose translation.
- They’re sticking pretty faithfully to the classics/out-of-copyright texts.
- MSRP of $30 or $35 USD. The books can be gotten for less on Amazon, but that isn’t the point.
Cloth covers stamped with foil, ribbon bookmarks, no special page edges
- These books have introductions and annotations included.
- For a line that focuses mostly on well-known 19th century American and British classics, there are some strange 20th century surprises lurking in the catalog like William S. Burroughs’s The Naked Lunch and Jean Rhys’s Wide Sargasso Sea (and it is very cool to be able to have a matched pair of that book and Jane Eyre).
- The typeface is different in each book, and they have a note about why they chose the particular typeface they did for each book. I think that’s a very cute detail.
- The cover/spine designs of the books are all different, but they are consistently stunning and look like they’re from the same line/designer.
- The Iliad and The Odyssey use the E. V. Rieu translations, which are also prose translations, but are at least different than the many Samuel Butler reprints published in these semi-fine collections.
- Over 40 books in the catalog. More books are being added to the line consistently.
- The foil stamping is rather delicate. Rough handling (carrying it around in a backpack or purse) or damp/clammy hands will remove the foil. There is also an unfortunately placed sticker on the back cover that will damage the foil when removed.
- The bindings are glued, not sewn.
- The annotations in The Hound of the Baskervilles contained spoilers for the mystery!!! I haven’t had that problem with the notes in the other books I’ve read from this line, but that’s something that would put me off the other Sherlock Holmes editions.
- They do not do multi-novel editions. Each book is individually bound.
- They’ve only published Dante’s Inferno, and not the rest of The Divine Comedy (so far).
Paper covers, no ribbon bookmark, no special page edges
- MSRP of $16 per book
- Some interior black and white illustrations
- All the books come with themed extras at the end, geared towards child readers, but appreciated nonetheless.
- There are only four books in the collection. An edition of Alice in Wonderland by the same designer does not match the rest of the set (too tall, but with interior colored illustrations).
- Glued bindings
- Little Women by Louisa May Alcott seems to have too many pages for the compact size. The spine gets bent/deformed when read.
- The ISBN information printed on the back cover is in a stark white box that doesn’t suit the rest of the design.
- Only one of the Anne Shirley books is included, Anne of Green Gables, which makes sense thematically but will make a larger collection of Anne Shirley books mismatched if you start here.
Paper covers with opaque foil designs, no ribbon bookmark, all three page edges are color-stained to match the covers
- This collection contains books beyond the typical 19th century classics, like Sue Monk Kidd’s The Secret Life of Bees and Kazuo Ishiguro’s An Artist of the Floating World.
- The books come in shrink wrap, so hopefully they will be protected from dirt during the shipping process.
- Collecting all the books will form a lovely rainbow gradient when stacked together.
- There are only 26 books in the catalog (one for every letter of the English alphabet). It would be very cool if they did a second wave of these, but I don’t expect it.
- Glued bindings
- The spines/covers fade quickly in indirect sunlight.
Cloth covers (with paper dust jacket), ribbon bookmark, no special page edges
- Sewn bindings
- They publish collections and complete editions of authors.
- The books have annotations and chronologies.
- The color of the cloth bindings vary, but the cloth colors stay consistent for each specific author. The cloth colors for the past ten-ish years have been chosen deliberately in order to avoid having huge swaths of one color if a large number of LoA books are organized on your shelf alphabetically by author’s last name.
- They have several nonfiction books for offer, including compilations like Reporting Vietnam and American Sermons : The Pilgrims to Martin Luther King, Jr., as well as speeches, essays, etc. from their featured authors.
- They do not limit their offerings to just out-of-copyright material, although their focus on cementing “great American writing” as canonical classics does skew towards things that have been around for a while. An original publication date of the late 1970s/early 1980s was the most recent thing I found in their catalog (scanning quickly).
- Library of America is a non-profit organization, which I think is pretty cool.
- They offer a subscription service that will send you slipcased versions of their books rather than the normal black dust jacket version.
- If you are also collecting Everyman’s Library editions (see below), these will fit together very reasonably on a shelf, as the books from both lines have very similar exterior dimensions. (Library of America books are a smidgen shorter.)
- Over 300 books in their catalog
- I hate their dust jackets. Their graphic design makes it hard for me to read the jacket, and yet they are also simultaneously plain. They are a glossy paper, which shows fingerprints and reflects light in a distracting way.
- Unjacketed, the books are the plainest on this list, with only a few details on the spine and nothing on the front or back covers. Again, you might think they look classy or unpretentious.
- The boards used to make the front and back covers are flexible, and this weirds me out. Perhaps it’s something meant to increase reading comfort?
- No internal illustrations, generally
- They only publish books by American authors.
- The price is around $32 USD per book, but certain books are more expensive.
Everyman’s Library (not including Children’s Classics)
Cloth covers (with paper dust jackets), ribbon bookmarks, no special page edges
- They publish “contemporary classics,” which include a range of things like The Diary of Anne Frank, Phillup Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy, and two Toni Morrison novels in addition to the expected Ernest Hemingways and James Joyces.
- The typeface is different in each book, and the last page of each book gives a brief history of the typeface (in the triangle-shaped block of text). I think that’s a very cute detail.
- The Iliad and The Odyssey use Robert Fitzgerald verse translations, although The Iliad does not have numbered lines for some bizarre reason.
- If you are also collecting Library of America editions (see above), these will fit together very reasonably on a shelf, as the books from both lines have very similar exterior dimensions. (Everyman’s Library books are a smidgen taller.)
- Huge catalog of books
- In 2013 or so, the company experimented with using glued binding to cut costs. Their customers were very upset, and the experiment was a failure. They’ve gone back to sewn bindings, but you might (especially if buying online) buy some stock from 2013 with a glued binding, and there is no way to tell them apart (like via ISBN) without inspecting the book in person.
- I dislike their dust jackets. The look alright in a big cluster on a shelf, but spread out look plain and unappealing.
- Under their jackets, the books are not as pretty as some others on this list, but you may find them to be classier.
- The color of the cloth for each book is determined by what genre/period the publisher puts it in. This is very annoying if you don’t agree with the choices (Jane Austen’s novels are dark green, so they’ll stick out from what I consider their 19th century fellows.) and also if you want a colorful, varied bookshelf but find yourself drawn to only one of those categories (burgundy for me, with a splash of scarlet).
- Scarlet = Contemporary Classics
- Navy = 20th Century
- Burgundy = Victorian Literature/19th Century
- Dark Green = Pre-Victorian/Romantic/18th Century
- Light Blue = 17th Century and Earlier
- Celadon Green = Non-Western Classics
- Mauve = Ancient Classics
- Sand = Poetry
- The title, author, and publisher information is printed on the spine (and some specific books have the information printed on the front cover, too), but this is a bit delicate and liable to rub off. I would not carry one around in a backpack or purse without its dust jacket.
Cloth covers, ribbon bookmark, no special page edges
- Sewn bindings
- While a large portion of the collection consists of fairy tales, there are also some unexpected books included that I wouldn’t think of as being “for children,” like Edgar Allen Poe’s Tales of Mystery and Imagination, and Edward Lear’s A Book of Nonsense. Check out the catalog; it might surprise you, too.
- The spines of these books are very pretty, and they have gold foil designs in a diamond pattern that mimics the end pages.
- Internal illustrations
- The prices for most of the books are between $15 and $20 USD.
- The colors of the cloth used for the covers are much more varied than the “more grown up” Everyman’s Library editions. If it bothers you, however, know that the colors are not the same among multiple different books by the same author.
- Over 50 books in the catalog
- The front covers of the books use (non-recessed) rectangular stickers as their illustrations.
- Their version of Don Quixote is abridged and has been adapted for children. Boo! I haven’t been able to find out if any of the other books have been abridged.
- The details printed on the cloth (like the pretty spine) are a bit delicate and will get scratched off with rough handling.
- The books are the same height as the Everyman’s Library books, but they’re wider (~6.3 x 8.25 in (~16.1 x 21 cm)). If you have a very shallow bookcase, then these might stick out a bit from the rest of the “standard book shape” books.
- Only one of the Anne Shirley books is included, Anne of Green Gables, which will make a larger collection of Anne Shirley books mismatched if you start here.
- The Wonderful Wizard of Oz is the only Oz book in the catalog, again troublesome if you wanted a larger collection.
Cloth covers, ribbon bookmark, gold gilding on all three page edges
- Sewn bindings
- Some books have internal illustrations.
- These editions come with introductions or afterwords.
- The front covers have a debossed design, which really makes the books look and feel lovely.
- The books are very compact, measuring ~4 x 6.2 in (~10 x 15.7 cm). I find this a great size since I have smaller hands. If you have larger hands, this may be a very big detractor, though.
- There are some cool nonfiction additions, like Darwin’s On the Origin of Species, to their mostly classics catalog. There are also a few books from the 20th century that I’ve never seen on any “classic literature” list, which is fantastic.
- MSRP is around $15 USD or less.
- Under the dust jacket, the author, title, and publisher information is printed on the spine in gold.
- Over 200 books in their catalog… sort of (see the Con about the Collector’s Library).
- White paper
- Dust jackets, although these ones don’t annoy me nearly as much as the other dust jackets I’ve mentioned.
- Some books are abridged, some are not. You’ll have to research each book individually if having an unabridged text is important to you.
- As might be expected with books this physically small, the font size varies in the line. For small books, like Shakespeare’s Sonnets, the font is medium or even a little larger than medium (although that could be an optical illusion brought on by all the white space on those pages). As the books get thicker/larger, the font size used decreased. Vanity Fair by William Makepeace Thackeray uses a small font, but it’s still easy to read for me.
- All the Macmillian Collector’s Library editions are bound in cloth that is a beautiful dusty, pastel blue, and come with a ribbon bookmark that matches the cover color. The gilding is gold, and the dust jackets reflect this color scheme, as well. This presentation works very well for books like Frances Hodgson Burnett’s The Secret Garden and Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Ernest, but feels totally incongruous some titles like Tales of Mystery and Imagination by Edgar Allen Poe and The Communist Manifesto.
- The Collector’s Library was a small publisher focusing on classics before being scooped up by Pan Macmillan. The books originally published by the Collector’s Library look different from those published by the Macmillan Collector’s Library. Macmillan Collector’s Library has reissued some of the books in the original Collector’s Library catalog, but not all. (On the bright side, I’ve heard the new Macmillan Collector’s Library is of better quality than the old Collector’s Library.)
- They do not publish omnibus editions, although they sometimes combine two novellas into one book.
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I hope this guide helps you navigate the sometimes tricky waters of building a personal library. In any case, it certainly helped me organize my thoughts about all the collections I listed. Readers, do you know of any other publishers, imprints, or special lines that would fit the “semi-fine” category? Please share them in the comments below!