To most people, summer reading means a good mystery or a frothy romance, but there still are those few who perversely prefer Plutarch to Mary Higgins Clark, Poe to James Patterson.
Summer traditionally is the time for light, vacation reading, but Max Rudin is betting Americans will spend days at the beach -- and other times, too -- doing some serious reading. Rudin is the publisher of Library of America, a nonprofit, advocate of the classics that ensures timeless works such as Herman Melville's Moby-Dick stay in print.
"What's interesting is, there are certain subjects that people will go back to," says Rudin. Key periods of American history -- the Civil War and World Wars I and II -- "are always inexhaustibly interesting and important. You can't understand who we are without understanding them."
Since its founding in 1979, the Library of America has published more than 130 "authoritative texts." The organization sells about 250,000 volumes a year, mostly to individual readers, although libraries and universities also are customers. The hardback books retail for $30 to $45 and are printed on acid-free paper to survive for generations.
Not all reprints of the classics are created equal. HarperCollins has plans to reissue C.S. Lewis' Chronicles of Narnia, stripped of all religious references. The publisher wants to profit from the rich market for children's fantasy created by the Harry Potter books, and says Christian references have to go -- to the ire of Lewis scholars and fans. HarperCollins will also commission new Narnia novels by unidentified authors to "fill in the gaps" in the Lewis books.
Purists such as Brad Wilson, executive director of the National Association of Scholars, says classics must be preserved, revered and read because they speak to the most fundamental issues of humanity. "The classics invite the reader into a world in which the perennial issues of human life are most deeply considered, where the fundamental human alternatives are ferreted out," he says, "where the most important question for human beings -- `What is the nature of the good life?' -- is most thoroughly explored and revealed."
Winfield Myers of the Intercollegiate Studies Institute, who previously taught in the Great Books Program for the University of Michigan's Honors College, says classics take readers outside the confines of their time, allowing them to benefit from the knowledge of those who came before us. …