The Corner

Is the Loeb Classical Library Breeding Nazis?

I must give laudationem to The Weekly Standard, in these times of war and disease and looming elections, for putting the digitization of the Loeb Classical Library on the cover of its print edition.

Susan Kristol’s history of the dual-tongue, pocket-sized collection of the Greek and Roman canon contains some very interesting insights on the monumental effort to make classical literature available in both original texts (verso) and facing-page English translations (recto). It had never even occurred to me, for example, to wonder whether a given Loeb translation was too old-fashioned or needed an update (which many have gotten since Harvard University Press started bringing the books out in 1911), because the Loeb editions always seemed as ancient and immovable as the works they contained. Not so, it turns out. The Loeb Library has gone through some substantial changes over the years and the most striking one is buried midway through the article:

While the green and red dust jackets feature a tasteful black-and-white meander pattern on the front, there are some older volumes that were produced with a light-colored dust jacket. Instead of the meander, these dust jackets display a border of tiny swastikas, pointing in the clockwise, “Nazi” direction.

I haven’t been able to ascertain when these particular volumes were first printed. My own collection of Loebs includes three of these oddball editions: a Horace printed in 1952, a Xenophon from 1956, and a Plato from 1962. I had never looked closely enough to notice the swastikas until I began research for this essay. There are at least 10 different volumes with this type of dust jacket advertised on used-book websites, with print dates as early as 1928 (a volume of Cicero) and continuing on through the 1930s and ’40s and into the ’50s.

Current HUP representatives are not sure when or why there was a switch to the covers with the swastika pattern, although it clearly happened during the long period when the London publisher, Heinemann, was in charge of production.

Presumably that design element was quietly retired for the same reason the “you’re Mussolini” addition vanished from later performances of the song “You’re the Top.”

Despite the digitization hook, Kristol focuses on the print history:

Even with their new online life as searchable texts, the Loebs will continue to be produced as hardcover books, suitable for gifts: $26 each (or take advantage of the 25 percent discount and buy the complete set for $10,140!).

The Loebs are a conveniently small size, originally conceived by James Loeb as the right shape to fit into “a gentleman’s pocket.” With their bright red and green dust jackets and cloth bindings—red for Rome, green for Greece—the Loebs are easy to spot from a distance. Indeed, they have become something of a design statement, having appeared as part of Mr. Burns’s library in The Simpsons, in Pottery Barn ads for bedroom decor, and as part of a red-themed room designed by Martha Stewart, stacked next to a 1930s Chippendale-style fish tank.

Years ago, as I was browsing in a magazine with photos of a beach cottage designed by Martha Stewart, I saw a white room with low shelves containing uniform rows of green-jacketed Loebs. It was beautiful, although a waste of good literature that would never be read by the home’s owners.

This is still the most important part of the story, and it seems a bit late in Internet history to say, as Loeb editor Jeffrey Henderson does, that online Loeb is “the model for the digital age.” I don’t know of any works of classical lit that have not existed online for many years, and translations seem to be more or less universally available as well. Googling Terence’s The Self-Tormentor and a separate English translation might be slightly less convenient than having them together at one site, but it’s cheaper than the $195 subscription, and most or all of these things seem to be safely in the public domain — though you never know what Disney’s lobbyists might think of next.

The Loeb library in print, however, was a model for the current age. Bookshelf color-design is a thing these days, with hipsters buying technical manuals or Nancy Drew mysteries by the lot, just because their uniform-color spines make an attractive statement when they’re lined up without Interruption. The scarlet and cucumber spines of the Loebs were giving people of refinement a chance to do this kind of thing decades ago; and the books themselves, rather than being just random by-their-cover selections, were the last word in aspirational bookshelving. Brightly colored yet tasteful, they signaled that you were willing to take your erudition to the next level. To get any more impressive you’d have to crank it up to Bibliothèque de la Pléiade.

Come to think of it, I didn’t mean to talk anybody out of buying a Loeb-digital subscription in the above comments. If you do decide to join the Internet revolution, I’ll help you make room by taking some of those old dead-tree books off your hands. Salve.