To the Editor:
My long-term admiration of Joseph Epstein’s writings increased after reading his essay on the Readers’ Subscription, later known as the Mid-Century Book Society [“The Critics' Club,” July-August]. But it should be added that the introductory material in the book he reviews, A Company of Readers, shimmers with innocence and error about the business of this club and what happened behind the scenes when the house of intellect had an affair with the culture of money.
The Readers’ Subscription was an admirable enterprise in its intent and choice of books, but it farmed out its “fulfillment”—that is, the processing and shipment of orders. This is a task that confounds some of the largest companies. The club’s three judges—W.H. Auden, Jacques Barzun, and Lionel Trilling—were often dismayed to hear from club members who had not received a particular book, or had gotten the wrong book or bill. In 1959, they formed a partnership with me for the purpose of buying the club or, if that failed, starting a new one.
My responsibility was to find capital, serve as operational head, and edit the monthly magazine. Financing for the new club, to be called the Mid-Century Book Society, was obtained from Arnold Bern-hard, the founder of Value Line, who became the nominal president. Soon Mid-Century did all of its own fulfillment, moving the judges out of harm’s way.
As Mr. Epstein notes, A Company of Readers never mentions how much the three members of the editorial board were paid. At Mid-Century, the annual compensation of each was $4,000, worth much more then than now but still not an overwhelming enticement. But each of the judges also acquired an equity interest in the company of about 10 percent (as did I) and a position on its controlling board.
My impression was that Arnold Bernhard funded the company to enjoy the companionship of cultured men like Auden, Barzun, and Trilling. He was thus more surprised than anyone when Mid-Century—which rescued from obscurity works like Eric Partridge’s etymological dictionary, Origins, and Vladimir Nabokov’s Laughter in the Dark—also became financially successful. Thereupon he decided to vote changes that would leave him not with 51 percent but with 90 percent of the company. He encountered a barrier in me, who had been reading a book called something like Defense Against Squeeze-Outs in Small Business. But when I attempted to block his ploy, he terminated both my job and my shareholdings. (I sued him, and quickly won a settlement that became the seed money for the new publishing firm of Stein and Day, which Patricia Day and I superintended for more than a quarter-century.)
As for the Mid-Century Book Society, Bernhard’s accountant took over the running of the club, grew a beard as a cultural appendage that might appeal to young ladies, added sex books to the mix, redesigned the club’s elegant magazine in a commercial format, and in short order brought the enterprise to its knees.
Tarrytown, New York