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Great Books Reborn

June 2024
1min read


A few weeks ago I found myself balanced atop a ladder at die Strand, a vast used-book store in Manhattan, hanging onto a shelf with one hand and reaching greedily for John Lukacs’s The Last European War with the other. I stretched out as far as I could; just a few inches more and it was mine. Then, horror, the ladder began to tilt. So this is how it ends, I thought—with a great, sprawling crash into nineteenth-century Prussia. Perfect. I managed to regain my balance; no swan dive, but definitely a bad bibliographic moment.

When I got home, however, I discovered that the fates had arranged a very good bibliographic moment for me. In the mailbox was a catalogue from Phoenix Press. Treasure! And the best kind: treasure from the crypt. Here, returned to life, were Rebecca West’s The Meaning of Treason , Maria Bellonci’s Lucrezia Borgia , Hugh Trevor-Roper’s Archbishop Laud , Elias Canetti’s Crowds and Power , and Irving Howe’s World of Our Fathers , all of them newly reissued in trade paperback and all for $14.95 to $24.95.

Phoenix Press was conceived by Anthony Cheetham, chief executive of the U.K.’s Orion Publishing Group, and is overseen by Bing Taylor, the managing director and publisher. Says Cheetham: “I have long been convinced that the history backlist was a significantly underexploited resource. Our decision to do it on such a large scale was prompted by continuing developments in print technology, which make small runs viable, and the spectacular growth of the Internet as a sales channel for books.” Taylor says Phoenix seeks “to become the first port of call for everyone interested in world history.”

They’ve made a hell of a start. The plan is to publish out-of-print titles side by side with newly issued books at a rate of 12 a month. The breadth of focus is extraordinary, with interest categories such as the Age of Disasters, Science and Natural History, Empires, the English Civil Wars, and on and on. The historians Simon Schama and Lady Antonia Fraser will choose, and write about, some of their favorites.

Schama perfectly captures the spirit of the thing: “I like my history disorderly and omnivorous … and I have always loved histories that surprised me with their improbability and with their impolite eccentricity: Braudel’s lyric geography; Michelet’s flooding passion; the sardonic devastation of Tacitus’s irony; E. P. Thompson’s rolling ideological thunder; Francis Yates’s memory palace, crammed with alchemical signs and wonders.”

The books are available from Phoenix Press, telephone 44-1903-828-503, or from their Web site, .

—Alan Furst

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