Just because Sanskrit lacks a precise word for "angel"––amsara approximates the Judeo-Christian notion––the language doesn't lack for an actual angel. His name is John Clay, a businessman and lifelong devotee of Sanskrit literature who has created the Clay Sanskrit Library, copublished with New York University Press. Once completed, the series will comprise one hundred volumes, including the entire text of the Mahabhárata (in thirty-two volumes) and the Ramáyana (in eight). Each book is published in the geek-chic format made familiar by Harvard's Loeb Classical Library, with honeyed turquoise covers replacing the spartan reds and greens favored by Loeb. After NYU Press produced the first eleven books in the series early this fall, I sat down with press director Steve Maikowski to talk about the series. —Eric Banks
ERIC BANKS: The Clay Sanskrit Library series is terrific—congratulations on it.
STEVE MAIKOWSKI : Have you seen copies yet?
EB: Yes. I have the first eleven books in the series.
SM: We are expecting five more titles in the spring, and then we're probably going to do five per season until we get all one hundred out. It was a very ambitious launch to do eleven, and it almost killed several of the people involved. Well, one of the managing editors
EB: They're very handsome books. Who does the printing?
SM: The man behind all this, John Clay, wanted to model the series on the Harvard Loeb Classics to such a degree that he actually went to find out who the original printer was. The printer is in northern England, one of those old British printers that no US publisher could ever afford anymore. Clay found out that Harvard hasn't printed with them in many years. The managing editor of the series is based in London, so she has very convenient access to the printers.
EB: The design is really gorgeous and minimal and compact.
SM: The design work was a little bit collaborative, but John Clay knew exactly what he wanted. He wanted a certain look. He wanted the trim size to be like the Loeb, and he'd actually talked to people at Harvard University Press beforehand to see whether they had any problem with his replicating the Loeb look. And they didn't.
EB: Tell me more about Clay's involvement.
SM: John Clay is a very successful international businessperson. When he was at Oxford, he became enamored of Sanskrit literature and scholarship, but he basically left his academic roots behind and went out and became an international businessperson. About twenty years ago he started a firm called Clay Finlay, which is still a major business in the old Pan Am Building in New York.
But a couple of years ago he decided to pursue his lifelong dream to have all these works published in major reference collections. He is funding a lot with his own money. He thinks, at some level, that once critical mass is reached, these books will start to sell very, very well. But obviously, that's not why he's doing it.
John is, again, very passionate about Sanskrit and the series. He's very well connected with the whole community of Sanskrit scholars. Working with [Sanskritist] Richard [Gombrich] is what brought him to Isabelle Onians and Somadeva [Vasudeva], who are also Sanskrit scholars. It's not a huge community.
EB: Sanskrit isn't widely taught in classics departments anymore.
SM: Ironically, when the series came along, I thought, "So, what could be the connection with NYU?" Well, NYU not only doesn't have a Sanskrit scholar or a Sanskrit offering, but they don't have a South Asian studies department per se.
EB: NYU Press doesn't maintain a strong presence in South Asian studies, either.
SM: We're in the middle of focusing our disciplines, seeing where our competitive advantages are, asking which fields are we going to grow and which are going to shrink—the same big issues many university presses are dealing with. With the Clay Sanskrit Library, I had to go to my colleagues and say, "This doesn't apply, in a way.
This is a stand-alone series." But, in a way, it fits our broader mission of publishing really good, original scholarship. If it had been only a single volume, we probably wouldn't have undertaken it, but when John proposed to bring out one hundred books over the next
six years—including the entire Mahabhárata in thirty-two volumes and the Ramáyana in eight—it's a different story. It will be wonderful for students and scholars and public libraries everywhere. I live in central New Jersey, which has a huge Indian and South Asian community. In the school district, maybe 5 to 10 percent of the kids are of South Asian heritage. I thought, "Every public library in these communities is going to want this
EB: It's hard to imagine a community like that without an available and accessible
set of the Mahabhárata, not to mention the other titles in the series, which are so crucial historically to the growth of Hinduism and then to Buddhism and Jainism.
SM: It's an unusual project in many ways. For example, it's rare for a university press to publish works that aren't peer-reviewed. In this case, we felt that the community of Sanskrit scholars was so small and specialized that if, say, Sheldon Pollock is doing something, who are you going to send it to in order to vet what he's doing? You could send it to Richard Gombrich, but Richard's already seen it. In that sense it's self-directed. Everyone associated with the project is an expert in the field. So, indirectly it's being peer-reviewed internally through the project staff. Even though we're fully copublishers, our involvement on the editorial side remains pretty minimal.
EB: It's interesting to see how the translator's voice varies from text to text, and how each is taking what seems to be a very different approach to the philosophy of translation. I was reading a splendid review of the series in the New Criterion, but I think the reviewer may have underplayed how many levels of meaning exist in one Sanskrit combinatory "word."
SM: I also think that some of the inconsistencies in voice, tone, and style that you may have seen in the first eleven won't be quite the same in future volumes, just because they were put out on such a rush, accelerated schedule.
One other thing: John Clay was really adamant about not just the way the books looked but also how we priced them. "You might want to price the various books differently," I said. "You've got a 480-page book, and this one's only 304 pages. One might be $22, and one might be $19, and one $24." He said, "No, I want them all consistent." So every book
EB: Yeah. Well, that's—
SM: Simplicity. Everybody in-house knows the marketing, that they're all $22. You don't have to worry about differential pricing.
EB: It's the most linguistically sophisticated language in history, with layer after layer of rules, and rules about rules, and it was codified so early in human history––so it's a nice kind of irony to have the absolute simplicity in presentation, cost, etc.
SM: One is sophisticated, one has become very simple.
EB: I assume the set presents some interesting marketing challenges.
SM: We've tried almost everything at one level. We did the core academic and library marketing very much in sort of the Oxford Reference book marketing style. We did a very nice brochure. We mailed it to public and academic libraries, and we did high-school libraries, and we sorted by major metropolitan area, and we also did a lot of research to find out where the Indian communities are in North America and highlighted all those schools. Again, when you look at the Sanskrit scholars in the college classroom, I think there were seventy-one total. So we got all those names. That was very easy.
EB: Did you call them each personally?
SM: Well, they all got a brochure. We could have been telemarketing to that group!
But we've tried to go the alternative route as well. I personally went out to some of the Indian supermarkets and chain book and video stores in central New Jersey, got a small order, five sets in all. We even tried some of the shops up in Little India, in New York. Well, they're not used to selling books, especially not selling what they might consider highbrow and classic literature.
So, again, at this point I've adopted Clay's attitude, which is to very calmly say, "This is a huge undertaking." It's going to be a bit of a slow burn. A lot of people probably think it's going to fizzle out after the first twenty-five books. But as it builds and builds, they will come to see what a major undertaking it truly is.