Yale Bulletin and Calendar

May 10, 2002Volume 30, Number 29Two-Week Issue

John Ryden

Press director to bid farewell
to venture he helped build

Even before the latest book has hit the bookstores, John Ryden, director of the Yale University Press, is thinking about soon-to-be-published books or those that are still in progress.

In other words, he's always thinking ahead.

But Ryden, who will retire at the end of this calendar year after 23 years at the helm of the University's scholarly publishing venture, recently turned from his thoughts of the future to reflect on his long career at the University.

"One of the most difficult things to do when looking back is to pick out particular highlights or single out particular books or authors," says Ryden. "We've had so many special books and special authors over time."

Nevertheless, there have been some notable moments for the director.

There was, for example, the excitement of having one of the Yale Press' publications -- a book edited by the famed Yale historian C. Vann Woodward -- win the Pulitzer Prize in 1982. The book was "Mary Chestnut's Civil War," an account of the war drawn from the diaries and writings of a Southern woman married to a Confederate general.

Vann Woodward's book is among some 500 Yale Press publications that have won prestigious prizes during Ryden's tenure. Other prizes won by Yale Press authors include the Bancroft Prize, the Mitchell prizes in art and Phi Beta Kappa's Christian Gauss and Ralph Waldo Emerson Awards.

Some of the books have become best sellers, such as Yale historian Jaroslav Pelikan's "Jesus Through the Centuries: His Place in the History of Culture," which sold over 100,000 copies.

Under Ryden's stewardship, the Press has published more than 4,000 books, two-thirds of all the books released during its 94-year history, and now boasts four lines "that overlap with and complement its core mission: an art list; a general trade list; a reference list; and a text or educational list," noted President Richard C. Levin in a letter to Yale Press staff and other members of the Yale community announcing Ryden's retirement.

"The best tribute to Mr. Ryden may be the stunningly impressive list of books published during his tenure; a list so varied and distinguished that to select a few works from it as illustration would run the risk of under-representing the whole," Levin wrote.

These include, the president noted, "scholarly books of imaginative and influential scholarship, biographies, interpretive histories, chronicles, reference books, books on the world's 'hot spots,' books by statesmen and artists, reference works, encyclopedias, companions, handbooks, guides, teaching materials in 30 modern and ancient foreign languages from Arabic through Yoruba, multi-media programs, interactive computer-based materials, and more than 90 different series.

"And these," Levin added, "are just the general categories."

Each one of those books, says Ryden, involves a certain amount of risk, regardless of its subject.

"Every book is an investment, and since no two are ever alike, every book involves taking a chance in some way," he explains. "Our goal has always been to publish as many books as possible without going broke."

A notable series begun under Ryden's tenure is "Annals of Communism," which spans the 75-year history of the Soviet Union, from the collapse of the Romanov empire to the country's breakup in the 1980s. The series was launched after the Yale Press signed an exclusive agreement with Soviet archive agencies to publish volumes based on research in Russian state and party archives. Most of this material had never been seen before by scholars. To date, the Press has published some 10 books in the series, including "The Last Diary of Tsaritsa Alexandra," "The Secret World of American Communism," "The Unknown Lenin" and "Stalin's Letters to Molotov." Another 25 are still to come.

"Annals of Communism" has been widely hailed. In an article describing the series, Time magazine wrote: "It is hard to overstate the excitement scholars feel about the opening of the Soviet archives in recent years -- millions of secret files that show the inner workings of the world's first and, so far, longest-running totalitarian state. What Saudi Arabia is to oil, these records are to 20th-century history."

More recently, the Press concluded a deal that gives it access to archives related to Stalin, Ryden says. "This material is useful in terms of increasing our understanding about the origins of the Cold War, and will, no doubt, make necessary a new biography of Stalin."

The Press also recently launched another international collaboration, "Culture and Civilization of China," a project to publish some 75 books by scholars from China and the West. "This project will engage about 400 scholars from around the world in collaborative work aimed at enhancing our understanding of this vast region," Ryden explains.

On occasion during his two decades at the Press, Ryden says, books have become "surprise bestsellers."

One example is "Taliban," a book by Ahmed Rashid that was published almost two years ago, which sold "nicely" in hardback, says Ryden, and was then released last summer as part of the Press's Nota Bene paperback series. In the months following the Sept. 11 tragedy, it became the number-one paperback in America, selling 300,000 copies.

"The book was the only authoritative and reliable book on the subject of the Taliban, and, naturally, everyone became interested in that subject," Ryden explains. Other Press books about troubled regions of the world in recent years have dealt with such places as Jerusalem, Kosovo and the Balkans.

Despite predictions that the digital age will eventually mean the demise of the book in its physical form, Ryden says that, thus far, electronics have not had much of an impact on the publishing world. He, for one, doubts that predication is true, he says.

"Books themselves haven't changed that much over time," Ryden comments. "Although we now license electronic versions of some books, most books are still sold in the codex form that has been around for a thousand years. I think that will always be the case. It's possible we'll use digital forms to manufacture books in different ways, but I suspect that the demand for the physical object will always be there."

The Yale Press experienced tremendous growth during part of this digital age, Ryden notes. In addition to doubling the staff, Ryden also oversaw the addition of a new wing at the Press' main headquarters at 302 Temple St., as well as new offices for Yale University Press London, and the construction of a large warehouse and shipping center in Rhode Island.

One of his greatest sources of pride, however, has been in the Press' focus on books by young scholars, Ryden says.

"A recent example would be a book by Yale historian Joanne Freeman called 'Affairs of Honor,' which offers a whole new way of understanding the politics of early Americans," Ryden says. "It was published -- coincidentally -- on Sept. 11, and it resulted in this brilliant book not getting the attention it deserves. It is a path-breaking and wonderful book."

Ever ready to think about the future, Ryden says readers can expect to see some major contributions from the Press in the year to come. Among these are a six-volume series by Pelikan titled "The Creeds and Confessions of Christendom," which will be published in print and electronic versions, and a new biography of Benjamin Franklin by noted Yale historian Edmund Morgan, which will come out in the fall of this year.

Ryden's own future plans include working as a consultant. He will remain in New Haven, where he can keep fully up-to-date on future initiatives at the Yale Press.

Levin has appointed a committee to advise him on the appointment of a new director. (See related story.)

Calling the Yale Press "one of the world's great university presses," Levin noted in his letter that the direction of the venture "requires an understanding of what will make an enduring scholarly contribution and a reader's comprehension of what will capture the imagination." Ryden possessed both of these qualities, he noted.

The president also wrote: "Those who know John or have worked closely with him will understand how much the Press and the book world in general owe to his deeply held values and principles, his capacity to encourage talent, his willingness to think outside the box and go for big ideas, and finally to his love and understanding of books."

-- By Susan Gonzalez


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