When Russian writers come up in conversation, as they are wont to, you can always count on someone—or an entire chorus—admitting to huge gaps in their reading and confiding that they really need to address the situation. I know because I’m one of them. I fully intend to read War and Peace and Anna Karenina before I die, but even though I could tell you exactly where they sit on my bookshelves, so far my reading life hasn’t arranged itself in the ways necessary to make this happen.
And who knows, it may not. Especially with a new canon of Russian literature heading our way in the form of The Russian Library, a new project from Overlook Press founder Peter Mayer and Read Russia. Modeled loosely on the Library of America’s focus on a wide-ranging body of national literature, the collection will eventually publish 125 volumes of translated Russian fiction, poetry, and drama over the next ten years. Some 10-12 of these will be classics, what Mayer calls the “great and obvious,” but much of the rest will be unfamiliar to Western readers, with work spanning a full thousand years:
Many of these books are unknown, but they deserve translation. And this is key—because they will be in English, which is basically the world’s second language, then people everywhere will be able to enjoy them. You know—Bulgarians, Mongolians, Spaniards—it’s an international project!
I’m sure English-speaking Mongolians everywhere will be celebrating. But as an ordinary English-speaking American, I think it’s a fine idea. This looks as though it might have been in the works for a while—Overlook acquired Ardis Publishers, who specialize in translations of Russian literature, back in 2002. And Mayer has good international contacts from his years as Penguin’s CEO. So it should be a fun project. I only hope that if it does go the Library of America route, with a standard cover template across the collection, Mayer poaches some of that good series design talent from Penguin while he’s at it. Surely Coralie Bickford-Smith has a little spare time for a side project? Or even better, perhaps he’ll find some as-yet-unknown Russian artist with innovation enough to last ten years. Come to think of it, I’m as interested to see how they look as I am to read them. At any rate, I’ll be looking forward to the Russian Library’s debut this fall.
(Photo is of the actual Russian State Library and Doestoevsky monument, courtesy of Wikipedia.)