The Murty Classical Library.

When my brother sent me this NY Times story by Jennifer Schuessler (thanks, Eric!), I was confused at first: didn’t I post about this years ago, and hasn’t it already gone under? But then I realized I was thinking of New York University Press’s Clay Sanskrit Library, which I wrote about in 2008; as this story says, it “closed up shop prematurely after four years and 56 volumes when its benefactor, the financier John Clay, ended his support.” This is a new venture, by Harvard University Press:

The Murty Classical Library of India, whose first five dual-language volumes will be released next week, will include not only Sanskrit texts but also works in Bangla, Hindi, Kannada, Marathi, Persian, Prakrit, Tamil, Telugu, Urdu and other languages. Projected to reach some 500 books over the next century, the series is to encompass poetry and prose, history and philosophy, Buddhist and Muslim texts as well as Hindu ones, and familiar works alongside those that have been all but unavailable to nonspecialists.

The Murty will offer “something the world had never seen before, and something that India had never seen before: a series of reliable, accessible, accurate and beautiful books that really open up India’s precolonial past,” said Sheldon Pollock, a professor of South Asian studies at Columbia University and the library’s general editor.

That literary heritage can seem daunting in size. While the canon of surviving Greek and Roman classics is fairly small, the literature of India’s multiple classical languages includes thousands upon thousands of texts, many of which, as the writer William Dalrymple recently noted, exist only in manuscripts that are decaying before they can be translated or even cataloged.

The Murty Library, Mr. Pollock said, aims to take in the broadest swath of them. “We are a big tent,” he said. “As long as it’s good and interesting and important, it’s going to be in the Murty Classical Library.”

Good for them for picking up the torch, and especially for expanding beyond Sanskrit to include all the classical languages of India. I wish the series well, and I hope it doesn’t get cut off before its time like its predecessor.


  1. Jongseong Park says

    I’m pleased that they seem to be paying the requisite attention to good design and typography:
    These are bilingual editions with the original text in the appropriate Indic script and facing-page translations in English. I don’t know enough about Indic scripts to be able to judge the typefaces used, but they are using a number of specially commissioned typefaces for Devanagari, Gurmukhi, and Telugu from award-winning designers vastly experienced in the scripts of the Subcontinent (Fiona Ross in particular).
    For Persian, they’re using the well-received Arabic typeface Nassim by Titus Nemeth, which has already been customized with Persian forms and used as the webfont for BBC Persian, though I would have loved to have seen something in the Nasta’liq style appropriate for Urdu and Persian. It’s understandable though, because the Nasta’liq style with its sloping baselines is fiendishly difficult to typeset.

  2. The first volume arrived in the mail yesterday, and I spent last evening reading some of Bullhe Shah’s Sufi lyrics. The typography is indeed beautiful, and so far the English prose translation and notes are excellent. However, the copy-editing is not very good for a series from HUP whose books are supposed to last forever on shelves and become core parts of their customers’ libraries. I noticed a number of mistakes with punctuation in the introduction in particular. Hopefully that is an isolated occurrence and they are proofreading the later volumes better!

  3. Jongseong Park says

    A welcome byproduct of this venture is that we can look forward to being able to use free high-quality Indic fonts developed for the library:

    “To date, Ross and John Hudson of Tiro Typeworks have designed typefaces for Bangla, Hindi, Panjabi, Sanskrit, Tamil, and Telugu, all of which will be made available, free of charge, for non-commercial use upon publication of the first books in which each appear.”

    Over the years academic publishing houses and societies have provided valuable and under-appreciated service to the public by making available specialist fonts (especially non-Latin fonts) for free, at least for non-commercial use, either by commissioning their creation or purchasing the rights to distribute existing fonts. Props to the HUP for their latest contribution to this.

  4. Good to hear that. John Hudson is very Unicode-savvy as well as a designer of excellent types.

  5. Anyone know if these have a glued or a sewn binding?

  6. My copy of the Therigatha arrived last night. (The binding is sewn as far as I can tell.) I’m excited that this series has gotten off the ground, but hella bummed that the language I know best is set in boring old Roman characters. Roll on the early Mahayana writings!

  7. I am absolutely awed by their plans to go for 100 years.

  8. John Emerson says

    “The literature of India’s multiple classical languages includes thousands upon thousands of texts”

    My failed Sanskritist Sinologist friend says that they’re 99% boring old sutras and the like, at least in Sanskrit.

  9. Well, tastes differ, of course. And the “at least in Sanskrit” proviso is important; who knows what riches await in Kannada and Telugu?

  10. des von bladet says

    Hold on, I have Mr Spurgeon on Line 2…

  11. If that’s a typo for “Sturgeon”, well, 10% of thousands and thousands is still hundreds and hundreds of non-crap classics. Sounds good to me!

  12. Hold on, I have Mr S[t]urgeon on Line 2

    Philip Gosse was a friend of Algernon Charles Swinburne. One day after Swinburne’s death, Gosse’s maid came into the dining room while Gosse was entertaining friends with the news that Mr. Swinburne was on the telephone.

    “I shall certainly not speak to Mr. Swinburne,” said Gosse. “I don’t know where he may be calling from.”

    (Actually, if Ted Sturgeon was on the phone for one of us here on Earth or elsewhere in the Galaxy, there would be absolutely no doubt where he was calling from.)

    (Algernon the mouse was named after Swinburne.)

  13. John Emerson says

    My innumerate failed Sanskritist Sinologist friend was innumerate. He meant 99.99%, but it did just apply to Sanskrit.

  14. If that’s a typo for “Sturgeon”

    Good for you! I had no idea what it meant.

    My innumerate failed Sanskritist Sinologist friend was innumerate.

    Your innumerate failed Sanskritist Sinologist friend was also failed.

  15. John Emerson says

    He warned against Sanskrit. He knew that much.

  16. If these really do feature a sewn binding and rich typography, I’m simultaneously amazed and very sceptical that this will last very long. Even Oxford University Press’s “Oxford Classical Text” series, once a benchmark for quality that could be handed down from generation to generation, has recently switched to digital print-on-demand and a flimsy glued spine. How long will that Murty family money keep flowing?

  17. John Cowan says

    22 volumes already, and more confidently expected. But I do think that if a book series is going to have uniform covers, they should be less boring uniform covers.

  18. Christopher Culver says

    Anyone know what the reason was for John Clay ending his financial support of this series that bore his name? I’ve seen hints here and there that there was some kind of dramatic change in his attitude, but nothing specific.


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