Friday, June 18, 2004

1904, It was a very good year. . .

In addition to Bloomsday, a celebration very close to my heart, this year marks the centennial of the birth of Isaac Bashevis Singer, the Yiddish-American Nobel Prize laureate.

While Singer's centennial has prompted a surprising amount of controversy (see: The New York Times), but I, unsurprisingly, would like to focus on a more pedestrian controversy.

I've long admired the Library of America, co-founded by one of my literary heroes, Jason Epstein. Epstein himself, however, complains in his book Book Business about some of the editorial decisions of the Library of America's board:

"The editorial selection [of the Library of America] has followed [Edmund] Wilson's original prospectus but with troubling deviations. These include a volume of sermons most of which are without literary merit or historical interest in themselves; collections of first-hand descriptions by journalists of American battles, interesting in themselves but of little interest as literature; the novels in translation of Vladimir Nabakov who is no more an American writer than Joseph Brodsky is an American poet; and a four-volume anthology of American poetry, separately financed by the National Endowment for the Humanites, which includes, inexplicably, much that is second rate or worse. . . . A hint of similar trouble ahead is the announcement of a [now published] anthology of writing by Americans about oceans, separately financed by a generous donor. Since the aim of the Library of America is to make permanently available the complete or subtantially complete works of important American writers, this topical anthology represents not only a dilution of purpose but a waste of scarce resources. . . . The Library of America has now published substantially all the work for which it was created and for which the rights are available. Its obligation hereafter is to husband its resources so that this work remains in print and accessible to readers, and to ensure that funds are on hand for the publication of twentieth-century writers as rights permit."

In fact, the LOA has followed the anthology on the sea with anthologies on New York, Los Angeles, Paris, and baseball. Additionally, in celebration of I. B. Singer's centennial, the LOA is not only publishing three volumes of Singer's short stories, but also a volume of reflections on Singer by contemporary writers. I'm not interested in arguing whether Singer belongs in the Library of America or not (the question of what is "American" is inherently troublesome); I'm more disappointed that the LOA seems so interested in producing books that are basically sentimental souvenirs.

I don't care what Jonathan Safran Foer thinks about I. B. Singer. Give me a volume of Lionel Trilling instead.

(My apologies to Mr. Epstein for the long quote. Buy Book Business here.)

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