Ex Libris Philanthropy

Donors are making Great Books available to the public

Socrates taught in the marketplace. Shakespeare wrote for massed crowds. Abraham Lincoln had three months of formal education. So did Thomas Edison. Many of history’s greatest teachers never saw a classroom.

In present-day America, of course, colleges and universities are home to much of our culture’s higher learning. But they are not the whole story. The life of the mind is not bound by the college quad. And some of the nation’s most important philanthropic support for higher learning has nothing to do with colleges and universities. Here are three donors who are working to make Great Books available to a general reading public.

Loeb Classical Library

A book from the Loeb Classical Library is instantly recognizable. Each of the 518 hardbound volumes is uniformly sized to “fit in a gentleman’s pocket” and sports a minimalist cover—red for works in Latin and green for those in Greek. Inside is a layout that has not changed in 100 years of publication. On every left-hand page runs the original text, with a near-literal English translation running on the right-hand page.

The series traces its origin to James Loeb, a son of Abraham Loeb, co-founder of Kuhn, Loeb & Co., one of the country’s first investment banks. James worked for the family business until serious illness forced him to retire. He dedicated the rest of his life to scholarship and philanthropy. His charitable work ranged widely—he helped found what later became the Juilliard School—but he is perhaps best remembered for this Harvard University Press imprint that bears his name.

Loeb underwrote the translation, production, and publication of the Loeb Classical Library. By the time of his death in 1933, the series ran to nearly 300 volumes. In his will, he left $300,000 to Harvard to complete the collection, and directed that any profits from the library should be put toward graduate-level scholarships in the classics—a program that continues to this day.

Clay Sanskrit Library

As a student at St. Paul’s in London, John Clay happened upon a cupboard in the school library. He opened it, and found inside a few musty volumes. Fascinated, he pored over them, thereby beginning a lifelong love affair with Sanskrit. The New Jersey–born Clay went on to Oxford, where he graduated in 1957 with first-class honors in Sanskrit, Avestan, and Old Persian. Clay declined an academic appointment, choosing instead a life in international finance. A long and successful career in global investment banking culminated with the creation of his own investment firm, Clay Finlay.

His first love, however, remained the great classics of Indian literature. In 1999, he began a major effort, modeled on the Loeb Classical Library, to disseminate the Sanskrit classics. He hired scholars, translators, and editors. He helped lay out the books, from the left-page transliterated Sanskrit to the right-page English translation—even the elegant teal cloth cover. In partnership with the New York University Press, the Clay Sanskrit Library first appeared in February 2005; four years later, the collection finished publication with 56 volumes. Thanks to Clay, one of the world’s great literary traditions, central to the lives of millions of people, is more readily available to the English-speaking world than it has ever been.

Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture

Early in their marriage, Howard and Roberta Ahmanson befriended a Methodist theologian named Thomas C. Oden. About 20 years ago, according to an article in Christianity Today, Roberta asked Oden, “What do you want to do with the rest of your life?” Oden was momentarily taken aback, but he quickly composed himself.

Oden described his desire to collect biblical commentaries from the Patristic era (roughly the first eight centuries of Christianity). Unlike most contemporary scriptural commentaries, written by specialists for scholars immersed in historical methods, this one would be written for a lay audience. A general reader would be able to read a chapter from, say, Exodus, and then read commentaries on it from Clement of Rome, Gregory of Nyssa, and Augustine of Hippo. The point was not to replace critical scholarship, but to supplement it.

The Ahmansons fund a wide range of charitable initiatives, including efforts to promote and enhance Christian faith. The Oden proposal immediately struck a chord with them. The result is the 29-volume Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture, published by InterVarsity Press. The series is now 20 years old and a staple of InterVarsity’s publications. It has been acclaimed by evangelical, mainline Protestant, Orthodox, and Catholic leaders—including two popes.

Christopher Levenick is editor-in-chief of Philanthropy.

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