The most-famous-book-in-English-not-currently-in-print contest is heating up. Hilzoy, having proposed Hakluyt’s Voyages, relays a suggestion from a friend that would be the hands-down winner: Samuel Johnson’s Dicitionary.
Actually, though, it’s in print (a facsimile of the first edition of 1755), as a library edition priced at $294. (Amazon warns that it takes 4-6 weeks to ship.) Johnson’s Dictionary is also available on CD for $50 .
Another reader has three strong nominees: Macaulay’s History of England (available in an abridged edition and in full on line, but not in print as a full set); Pollack and Maitland’s History of English Law (technically in print, but available only as a special-order item at Amazon for $250); and Chapters of Erie by Charles Francis Adams and Henry Adams, which is avaliable online and abridged but is not in print in full.
Counting expensive editions but not either abridgements or availability on line or on CD as “in print,” then, we have four strong nominees: Raleigh, Hakluyt, Macaulay, and the Adams brothers.
I find it hard to choose among them in terms of fame, though I’m pretty sure Macaulay was a best-seller in his day, and absolutely sure he remains highly readable.
Since Macaulay’s announced theme is the growth of liberty under law, perhaps the Liberty Fund should consider a re-issue, as a companion to the very nice Liberty Fund edition of Hume’s History. Chapters of Erie seems like a natural project for the Library of America.
I’m not sure where that leaves Raleigh and Hakluyt.
The contest remains open, but any new nominee would have to beat what is now a very strong field.
Footnote Two new entries in the lost-book division of this contest: the plays that won the prize at Athens in the years when Oedipus Rex and The Trojan Women lost. Mary Renault speculates that the judges dinged The Trojan Women as being inappropriately “anti-war” in the aftermath of the Melian massacre. But whatever beat out Oedipus Rex must have been well worth seeing.