In 1931, Jacques Schiffrin, who ran a French publishing company called les Éditions de la Pléiade/J. Schiffrin & Cie, created La Bibliothèque de la Pléiade, a series of pocket-sized books – long before the birth of the paperback – which gathered complete works of classical authors. These books were not meant as budget volumes; they were bound in leather, printed on bible paper, with attractive typography. They were designed to be affordable yet slightly fancy editions of great works. Initial volumes contained works by Baudelaire, Racine, Voltaire, Poe, Laclos, Musset, and Stendhal.
Les Éditions Gallimard bought out the series in 1933, continuing the books in spirit and in the same level of quality. Since then, Gallimard has published more than 600 titles, with authors ranging from Aristotle to Zola, covering the great classical French authors – Voltaire, Balzac, Stendhal, Saint-Simon, etc. – as well as authors in translation, such as Shakespeare, Henry James, Faulkner, Tolstoy, and many others.
These books are unique in France, being the only high-quality volumes that you can buy in a continuous series. In a country where hardcover books are rare (for novels and general non-fiction), the Pléiade series publishes books for the common reader who wants to have nice-looking books of great authors.
While most of the authors published are dead, some have been published during their lifetimes: Gide, Malraux, Claudel, Montherlant, Saint-John Perse, Julian Green, Yourcenar, Char, Gracq, lonesco, Nathalie Sarraute, and Milan Kundera.
Most of the authors come from Gallimard’s catalogue, though some were published by other houses: Many of Marguerite Duras’s novels were published by Les Éditions de Minuit, and Julian Gracq’s works were published by the small publisher José Corti. But the majority of these works are Gallimard’s authors, or their translations.
These books aren’t cheap; according to Gallimard, the average selling price is 58. (Though for many of them, it wouldn’t cost that much less to buy the individual paperback editions.) Nevertheless, they sell around 300,000 copies a year, 74% of which are back catalog. Back in the early 1990s, when I worked in a French bookstore for a few years, a sales rep told me that part of what kept the series afloat was the number of American universities that bought one or more copies of each volume.
I love these books. I have a few dozen of them, with works by Proust, Camus, Duras, Kundera, Cioran, Balzac and many others. I like the way they feel in the hard; the soft leather covers are comfortable. I like the typography, which, while a bit small (9 point Garamond), is delicately designed, with attractive ligatures. The light beige bible paper is very thin, yet sufficiently robust; you can have a volume up to about 2,000 pages which is still easy to handle. And the ribbons that are sewn into the binding make it easy to keep your place.
Unfortunately, in recent decades, the way the series publishes books has changed a bit. Instead of presenting collected works with limited notes, the volumes now include extensive scholarly apparatus, with up to several hundred pages of notes per volume. When I moved to France in 1984, the first book(s) I bought was the three-volume set of Proust’s À la recherche du temps perdu, which was around 3,000 pages long. A newer version, published in the late 1980s, takes about 7,500 pages, in four volumes. A volume of novels by Jean-Paul Sartre that I recently bought is 2,300 pages long, with about 500 pages of “notes and variants.” Not all volumes have so much extra material, but those that do end up being unwieldy – and expensive – because of all the extra texts they contain.
Nevertheless, if you read French, and are interested in either classical authors or those of the 20th century published by Gallimard, these are beautiful, highly readable books. Buy some for yourself, or as a gift for anyone you know who reads French.