I have long been an admirer of the Library of America, the nonprofit publisher that is, as it is explained on the organization’s website, “dedicated to publishing, and keeping in print, authoritative editions of America’s best and most significant writing.”
For quite some time, I was a subscriber, which meant that each month I received a beautiful slip-cased volume filled with the work of an American author. The editions are also available via retail sale in distinctive black dust-jacketed editions. In both cases, these are the kinds of books that by their sturdy, lovely presence silently argue against the notion that the e-reader will eventually fully replace the book as physical object.
My subscription has lapsed for quite a number of years as our family has grown and our book purchasing has changed its focus a bit. I’m confident that I’ll one day rejoin the subscriber list both because I believe in the importance of the project and because I admire the organization’s wide-ranging efforts to present the full scope of American letters. The Library of America is “seeking in enduring” and has admirably avoided the danger of defining that too narrowly.
For example, a recent blog post from the organization explained that while the first collection of the novels of 20th century science fiction writer Philip K. Dick (author of Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? and much more) was the fastest selling title in the Library of America’s history during its first year of publication, a volume of Thomas Jefferson’s writings has sold the most overall copies (217,518 as of January 3). Walt Whitman is the bestselling poet in the series, with 114,790 copies of the Library of America edition of his poetry and prose having been sold (good for fifth on the bestselling list), while Flannery O’Conner is the bestselling author with a connection to the Iowa Writer’s Workshop. Her collected works is in 10th on the Library of America bestseller’s list with 105,753 copies sold.
For the past year or so, I’ve been a Library of America subscriber of a different sort. Since December 2009, the organization has been posting a free “Story of the Week” on its website, drawn from one of the more than 200 volumes it has published. Each piece is supported by an introduction that provides context, and the project offers up an array of riches—stories and authors both famous and lesser known, pieces chosen for their connection to a date or recent event, a variety of nonfiction—and serves as an amazingly deep primer of American literature.
The series began with F. Scott Fitzgerald’s “The Glass-Cut Bowl.” As of this writing, the most recently posted piece is an essay by Randolph Bourne, a contemporary of Fitzgerald’s with whom I was unfamiliar. Being introduced to work by American writers who are no longer household names is perhaps my favorite thing about “Story of the Week.”
The single story each week is wonderful as well, serving as a short literary treat that can be savored without adding stress to a busy schedule. I’d be the first to admit, however, that sometimes I can’t squeeze even that single story into my calendar. Happily, the Library of America has the entire run of the project archived.
Certainly, the “Story of the Week” is, in part, a marketing campaign. The folks at the Library of America no doubt hope you’ll be hooked by the weekly taste of what the organization offers and be inspired to purchase full volumes by your favorites or even to subscribe to the series. But this is undeniably marketing of the noblest kind, providing something of true value that can be fully enjoyed whether or not one ever purchases a single book from the Library of America.
Whether you might like to subscribe to the full series of offerings or just to “Story of the Week,” I encourage you to check out the exceptional (and exceptionally important) work done by the Library of America.