Saturday, January 03, 2009

Book Review: "A World of Letters"

Yale University Press celebrated its centennial in 2008, and to mark the occasion the press approached Nicholas Basbanes to write a history of their first hundred years. The result is A World of Letters: Yale University Press, 1908-2008 (Yale, 2008). Basbanes was given full access to the publishing house's archives, was allowed to conduct multiple interviews with press administrators, and even got to sit in on several meetings of YUP's governing board, and he freely admits to harboring great enthusiasm for what the press has and is accomplishing. But this is not a hagiographic work by any stretch - were there were rough patches, Basbanes confronts them (but, to be fair, the press has had a surprisingly smooth run for much of its existence, so the potholes are few and far between indeed).

Basbanes begins by providing a very brief overview of the university press concept as it has been practiced in England (for more than five centuries) and in America (since 1878, with the establishment of Johns Hopkins University Press), but quickly hones in on Yale. In just four chapters, the author manages to offer up short profiles of the major figures in the press' history, an overview of its governance structure, an examination of its main series publications and successful publications (including its many award-winners and several of the surprise bestsellers it has released). Basbanes also discusses the role of the press' London branch, a full-scale editorial office (established in 1961).

Most instructive to those interested in other things than the arcana of the history of a specific publisher (fascinating in their own right to me, at least) are Basbanes' reflections on Yale's continuing financial successes (it is one of very few university presses which doesn't operate on a deficit) and on its strategies for the future (in an era of continuing declines in sales to libraries, for example), as the press looks to remain an essential element of American publishing for the next century and beyond.

Basbanes' keen sense of narrative is on display here, and he (mostly) resisted the urge to simply offer up lists of past works and editorial accomplishments (there is some of that, and rightly so, but it doesn't overpower the story). The book's relatively short length (196 pages) is a strength; with that, the tale can be told, but not in such great depth as to turn off the casual reader.

A suitable addition to both the Basbanes canon and to Yale's ever-growing list of excellent publications.

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