The Modern Library will launch a new trade paperback series, Modern Library Torchbearers, this May. The series, the publisher said, will "honor a more inclusive vision of classic books" by "recognizing women who wrote on their own terms, with boldness, creativity, and a spirit of resistance."
The books, all previously published, will be repackaged, and each will be introduced by a contemporary woman writer. The inaugural list for the series features:
- American Indian Stories by Zitkála-Sá, with an introduction by Layli Long Soldier (May 21)
- The Heads of Cerberus by Francis Stevens, with an introduction by Naomi Alderman (May 21)
- Passing by Nella Larsen, with an introduction by Kaitlyn Greenidge (May 21)
- The Awakening by Kate Chopin, with an introduction by Carmen Maria Machado (June 18)
- Lady Audley’s Secret by Mary Elizabeth Braddon, with an introduction by Flynn Berry (June 18)
- Villette by Charlotte Brontë, with an introduction by Weike Wang (June 18)
"The collection started with our desire to use the Modern Library as a platform to call out excellent but largely—and unjustly—forgotten books, especially those that may have been overlooked because of institutional or genre-based bias," Mika Kasuga, editor for the series and editor and publishing manager at Modern Library and Random House, told PW. "Francis Stevens (whose real name was Gertrude Barrows Bennett) created the subgenre of dark fantasy, which now includes authors like Neil Gaiman, Leigh Bardugo, and Tomi Adeyemi, but I’d never heard of her. Zitkála-Sá was a fascinating woman and a powerful activist—she founded the National Council of American Indians in 1926, but that doesn’t even begin to cover everything she accomplished—who deserves more than a Wikipedia page as her biography."
While the Modern Library has published The Awakening, Villette, and Passing before, the three other titles on the Torchbearers list are new to the imprint: American Indian Stories, the memoir of 20th Century Lakota activist Zitkála-Sá; Braddon’s Lady Audley’s Secret, which the publisher describes as "a Victorian-era Gone Girl tale"; and Stevens's The Heads of Cerberus, a science fiction novel in which those who inhale a "gray dust" are transported to a totalitarian version of Philadelphia in 2118.
Machado, the 2017 National Book Award for Fiction finalist for Her Body and Other Parties, said she was thrilled to be part of the series. "I’m excited about this series because of the chance to revisit some incredible books, to discover others for the first time, and to learn why a new generation of torchbearers finds these classics so compelling," she said.
The cover for each book was designed by women working in Random House’s design department, and the Modern Library colophon, which traditionally depicts a promethean torchbearer, has been newly rendered as a woman for the series. A representative for the imprint declined to give numbers for a first print run, and told PW that there aren’t plans yet to release the books as a set.
"Our canon reflects what and who we, as a society, value," Kasuga, speaking to the concept of the Western canon, said. "It’s our list of essential reading, cultural touchstones, and the most brilliant writers who have ever lived. Now that we’re starting to have some very meaningful conversations about diversity and recognizing the importance of different voices, it feels like an excellent time to examine our classical canon: to question what we consider to be the best books, and why. Especially since, amazingly, these books—by extraordinary women, about subversive women, that challenge what the “ideal” woman should be—do exist."