We’ve had several interesting sets come in the past few weeks, and a number of series books as well. And I thought you might be interested in knowing the difference between a set and a series.
If not, read one of the other nice blogs on this website and come back Wednesday. Maybe I’ll be discussing something off-color by then.
A set is a finite group of books which are interdependent: you need all the volumes for the thing to make sense. A series is a group of books, perhaps open-ended, in which the books are related but independent. The Nancy Drew mysteries or the Time-Life History of World War II are both series. The Encyclopaedia Britannica or the 1989 Who’s Who in America are sets. The volumes in a set are almost always numbered. The volumes in a series may be numbered or not.
To those of us in the book biz, the difference is important. We can sell Nancy Drew #3 and #7 without having the other volumes. The Rubens volume of the Time-Life Art Series can be sold all alone. If the World Book Encyclopedia is complete except for volumes C and G, it is a very hard sell indeed.
Somebody donated several volumes of The Year’s Work in English Studies. We had the 1989 volume, the 1986 volume, and the 1979 volume. I can put these out for sale without worrying about the 1988 volume, say. Some scholars may want the whole series (they look nice on the office shelf). Others, like the donor, may want only those volumes which mention them.
Occasionally a publisher comes along who takes a series and makes it into a set. As a child, I read numerous volumes of the How and Why series. These were primarily tall paperback books about specific subjects, with a concentration on scientific matters of interest to children: The How and Why Book on Dinosaurs, or the How and Why Book of Weather.
We have been given two sets of The Science Library, one complete in six volumes, the other missing volume 4. I checked to see whether you needed the entire set, or whether these were, in fact, series. What the publisher had done was assemble three How and Why books of related interest into each volume. Volume 3, for example, is the Earth Science volume, but if you will open it, you will find, complete with the original title pages, the How and Why Book of Rocks and Minerals, the How and Why Book of Our Earth, and the How and Why Book of Weather. The Book Fair word for this sort of thing is “cheating”. My sour expression is caused by the fact that, based on content, this is a series, and I should be able to sell the books individually. But based on the covers of the books, this is a set, and I don’t have much chance with the one that’s incomplete.
There are other complications, some of them merely philosophical, in dealing with sets and series. One of these you have already noticed, I suppose: plurals. You can have a set or you can have a dozen sets, but if you have a dozen series, you don’t get to say “serieses”. I may be the only person who stays up late worrying about this.
The same person who gave us the annual collections of essays about English studies also gave us several volumes from the late Victorian series “English Men of Letters”, a series of studies of individual authors. I would not have expected Nathaniel Hawthorne to have a volume, not being English, but he did WRITE in English, so I was prepared to let it pass. But the volume on George Eliot, who was known to everybody to be a woman named Mary Ann Evans, struck me as an odd choice. I muttered something about the Victorians and was prepared to let it pass.
I moved on to a bag full of children’s books. We had the Aladdin volume of the Disney Princesses series. So what goes around comes around.