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T. S. Eliot and Berkshire Publishing

A year ago I wrote one of my monthly e-letters about how I’ve moved between literature and science, and I’m glad now, as I revisit the Eliot story after the death of Valerie Eliot, that I recorded some ideas about my work on the Eliot letters and about the “two cultures.” I was quoted in a number of articles last week: click here to read Valerie Eliot’s obituary in the New York Times. I was glad they mentioned Berkshire Publishing Group (unfortunately it appeared as “Berkeley” in the print paper).

Karen’s Letter, October 2011 (click to read original)

I’m an accidental publisher, a writer who needed a better way to make a living, and it pleases me that T. S. Eliot (1888–1965) was, too. But when I worked for his widow Valerie in London in the late 1980s, I had no idea that I would eventually have my own publishing company, or that I would, like Eliot, get enormous pleasure from the range of contacts it brings. I’ve thought a lot about Eliot of late because the new US edition of the first two volumes of The Letters of T. S. Eliot has received an amazing amount of attention in the press: nearly a page in the Wall Street Journal as well as an article in The New Yorker and a long review in the New York Times Book Review, not to mention a feature in The Nation. None of these stories mention that neither of the two huge volumes (1,750 pages in total, price $90) brings Eliot’s story up to 1927, the point at which Mrs. Eliot (with some help from me back in January 1988) decided to conclude the manuscript of what was to have been Volume 1. (Those years included communication with some of the most influential and talents in the world of arts and letters, many of whom were involved with the literary journal The Dial.) Read more about Tom and Valerie Eliot, and my time working on the first volume of the Eliot Letters in their Kensington flat:

Of course I’m not a famous poet, and the publishing I do at Berkshire, which was at first focused on the social sciences, is of a very different type. My background in literature, though, is very important. In fact, my lifelong interest in both science and the arts, and my desire to have a foot in both worlds, has made Berkshire what it is today and points the company in the direction it now moves. I grew up in the Silicon Valley, you see, at about the same time as Steve Jobs. He was only a few years older than I and went to another of the local high schools. I was good at math but what I cared about was books: I wanted meaning, and feeling, not the cold world of machines. But I kept bouncing between what British scientist and novelist C. P. Snow called “the two cultures” – the arts and humanities – art on one side, science on the other. My best friend was studying ecology when I went to study at University of California, Santa Barbara, with the famous literary critic Marvin Mudrick (whom we’ve quoted in two recent Berkshire titles). Mr Mudrick (as we called him) encouraged me to take a class in the history of science, write about the Institute for Theoretical Physics, and apply for a job at Scientific American. He had me teach a course on literary letters as well. In the summer before my junior year I went to London and a temp agency sent me to Blackwell Science for two weeks. I stayed all summer and went back the following summer, in the end working there several years.

After having a baby, I began working part-time at the T. S. Eliot Estate, an experience I’ve written about in a UK literary magazine. But I also came back to science when I got a contract to write my first book, Home Ecology, which became something of a bestseller in the United Kingdom after being chosen one of Britain’s Top 20 Green Books in a promotion run by the Observer. (Mrs. Eliot, well-known for her conservative views, was completely baffled by my plan to write about ecology.)

It’s my conviction today that we need the sense of meaning that we get from literature and the arts, as well as the rigor of science. Both are essential to human society, and essential in finding ways to solve the great challenges of the 21st century. (At Berkshire we’re about to publish a color-illustrated volume in our BERKSHIRE Essentials series, called Art in World History, a beautiful book distilled from the Berkshire Encyclopedia of World History, 2nd edition). And we’rRequest Berkshire Titles for Your Librarye now moving into science and technology as we work on the Berkshire Encyclopedia of Sustainability, and even into engineering and medicine. At the same time, and for the first time, I’m thinking of publishing some literature – in bilingual Chinese/English editions – because it seems to be the best possible way to increase cultural understanding and improve our ability to communicate in a nuanced way across global borders and boundaries.



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