The Other Socrates

Adam Kirsch

This year marks the hundredth anniversary of the Loeb Classical Library, one of the most remarkable publishing projects in modern history. Yet as with everything book-related in the year 2011, the Loeb centenary carries with it a touch of wistfulness, and an uncertainty about the future. For the Loeb classics are the monument of a book culture that now seems on the wane — a culture that prized the making and owning of physical books, not just for the pleasure of turning the pages, but from a sense that the book was the natural, predestined vessel of every expression of human thought.

The mission of the Library is the same today as it was in 1911, when it was founded by James Loeb: to make the whole of Greek and Latin literature available to the amateur scholar and the common reader, by producing inexpensive editions of the classics with English translation on facing pages. Loeb himself was a remarkable figure, the scion of a German-Jewish banking dynasty who devoted himself to cultural philanthropy of the highest order — among other things, he helped found the music school that became Juilliard. But it was the Classical Library that turned the name "Loeb" into a common noun. Originally published by the British firm Heinemann, the American distribution of the Library was turned over to Harvard University Press in 1933. Since 1989 it has been reinvigorated with a program of new, up-to-date translations, which drop the age-old schoolmaster’s habit of veiling explicit sexual references with euphemism, or simply leaving them untranslated.

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