american literature

A whistle-stop tour through American literature

Max Rudin, 53, has every publisher’s dream job. The married father of two oversees the Library of America (LOA) in New York City, where he spends the bulk of his working hours poring over and organizing manuscripts written by some of America’s greatest literary lights dating back to the 18th century. With annual sales of 250,000–300,000 books, the strictly nonprofit LOA enjoys a reputation as the best single repository of American literature.

Rudin was in the Czech Republic last week as part of a U.S. Embassy–sponsored three-city tour of Prague, Olomouc and Brno. Along with promoting LOA, he was hoping to stimulate the founding of a similar publishing venture in the Czech Republic.

When I arrived for our interview, Rudin was impressively leafing through a well-worn copy of famous Czech exile Josef Škvorecký’s The Engineer of Human Souls. I wondered what a typical day is like in the life of a man dedicated to collating and publishing the best prose and poetry ever produced by his fellow countrymen.

“Let me tell you right off the bat, it’s really a labor of love,” Rudin admitted. “We’re first and foremost a cultural institution, so while the lion’s share of our operating revenue comes from book sales, the Library of America is not a Random House. We unfortunately continue to bleed over a million dollars a year in losses, and it’s been a challenge to convince funders to place their money in our nonprofit.”

One of a kind

Started in 1979 with seed capital from the National Endowment for the Humanities and the Ford Foundation, LOA began collecting source material and negotiating and securing copyright licenses, building a catalog that currently boasts over 6 million titles. The LOA roster features almost entirely long-deceased American writers, save for a couple of exceptions like noted Prague enthusiast Philip Roth and the late Saul Bellow, who was still alive at the time the library started amassing his works.

With a canon that rich, what accounts for the reluctance on the part of funders? “It’s been a struggle from the get-go to convince funders to support what we consider to be a very worthwhile project, since they can’t see a positive bottom line for themselves,” Rudin says.

But LOA thrives among readers. Past popular titles have been mainly of a historical nature: selected speeches, letters and writings from famous Civil War generals and U.S. presidents. Walt Whitman’s poetry is a perennial best seller.

Most of the titles sell for less than $40 (900 Kč), a remarkable price for books often pushing 1,000 pages. “To offer a collection this old and this extensive for under $40 a shot, let me tell you, is really unheard of in the U.S. publishing industry,” Rudin says. “You wouldn’t believe how much painstaking work goes into each and every title we offer for sale. For most mainstream publishers, they simply don’t have the inclination nor the resources to mount this kind of campaign. So, in that respect, the library is one of a kind.”

An amazing foundation

The presentation Rudin made in Prague focused on Isaac Bashevis Singer, whose inclusion in the LOA created a small controversy. Considering that much of Singer’s material was written exclusively in Yiddish — not exactly common in the United States — it seemed tenuous even to refer to him as an “American” writer.

“For us, for a work to be classified as truly American, it has to pass the litmus test of whether the author in question made a significant contribution to American literature,” Rudin says. “In Singer’s case, he was the country’s seventh Nobel Prize winner for literature, so that certainly says something about his caliber. Asking whether Singer was really ‘American’ is a nonissue for us.”

While there are no current plans for a Czech version of LOA, Rudin likes the idea of one. “We’re certainly open to the notion of potentially sharing our experiences with the relevant Czech authorities,” he says. “Other than my handing out a few business cards, I can’t speak to anything concrete. Someone should do it, though. Němcová, Palacký, Hrabal, Hašek, Kundera, Havel, Škvorecký, Kafka … that’s an amazing foundation right there.”

Rudin also liked the vibe he picked up here.

“Prague reminds me of the way New York City used to be — people getting together, drinking beer and coffee, having some really deep meaningful chats about important literature and other worldly affairs,” he says. “New Yorkers don’t seem to have time for that anymore. But you guys have a great thing going over here. I’m glad I boned up on as much Czech writing as I could prior to arriving, because I really needed it, especially over in Moravia.”

And he seemed impressed by his brief tour of the country.

“The Czech Republic is certainly much bigger than I thought it was,” he says. “But this is a gorgeous place and people have some very sound ideas here. I’d definitely like to come back.”

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