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A More Excellent Way: An Interview with John Clarke of Cluny

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A More Excellent Way: An Interview with John Clarke of Cluny

[W]e must admit that we live in an age characterized by a deep and unwitting forgetfulness. So the question Cluny asks, then, is this: How can we see where we are if we have no knowledge of where we have been?

By Noelle Mering

In a largely transactional and often unmoored modern world, the book publishing work of Cluny feels vital and deeply human. We were eager to learn more -- and to introduce their work to those who've not yet had the pleasure -- by way of an interview with their editor-in-chief, John Clarke. 

TOH: Thank you for agreeing to this interview! Can you tell us a bit about what drew you to Cluny initially?

Clarke: Short answer: Filial piety. My parents, Leo and Kathleen, co-founded Cluny back in 2015. Gainfully but not meaningfully employed at the time, I could hardly respond to their invitation that I join them in the work with anything other than enthusiasm.

Long answer: The opportunity to be a part of something fresh in an age and economy of staleness. A strange thing to say, I admit, about a publishing house dedicated to old stuff—to “preserving the past and promoting the tradition” by means of recovering and re-presenting old books—but a true thing nonetheless.

The year of Cluny’s founding, I graduated from Providence College with a bachelor’s degree in philosophy, facing the question that confronts every holder of a liberal arts degree: “What am I going to do with this?” In other words, “Where am I going to find work that has a real connection to that world of great books and big ideas, of insane dreamers and heroic saints, in which I have walked and talked for the past four years?” Teaching and/or further study were obvious possibilities, but I lacked the temperament for the former and the talent for latter; moreover, I felt driven to pursue something that promised independence (not an easy thing to come by along those two paths). Providentially—and I mean that absolutely—Cluny appeared and gave me the opportunity to do just that.

The thing that drew me to Cluny initially is the same thing that draws me to my work every day. The opportunity to make something substantial, something meaningful, something beautiful—a book. (Well, many books.) The opportunity to dig down into our past and salvage from its depths items which are of real interest, value, and significance, but which have tragically been derided, dismissed, or forgotten. To dust those items off and see that they can still catch the light and reflect it in illuminating and interesting ways—that is a wonderful thing. It drew me then; it draws me now; and, God willing, it will do so for many years to come.

All photos via Cluny

TOH: What do you find differentiates Cluny in the world of publishing?

Clarke: Our practically single-minded attention to the past. Look through the Cluny catalog and you will notice the near-total absence of newly authored books; our “new” releases are actually “old” recoveries. (The newest of among our last seventy books is then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger’s Ministers of Your Joy, from 1989—a spring chicken by Cluny standards.)

Most, if not all, Catholic publishers make reprints a feature of their catalogs. Only Cluny, to the best of my knowledge, makes reprints the main event of the catalog. Our God is God of the living, but our books are of the dead. Our purpose in this was not (and is not) to downplay or dismiss the importance of contemporary works; it should go without saying that the evil and the good alike of today merit condemnation and celebration, right here and right now, and that the publishing of books which facilitate that conversation is absolutely essential work. At the same time, though, we must admit that we live in an age characterized by a deep and unwitting forgetfulness. So the question Cluny asks, then, is this: How can we see where we are if we have no knowledge of where we have been?

If the past is a teacher, we can learn from her in two ways. The first is by having other teachers look at the past’s lessons and then relay them to us. The second is by taking the burden on ourselves to attend to those lessons and independently wrestle with their significance. Neither of these ways is a “safe” option; neither of them is without risk, perhaps especially the latter. But, as Bilbo Baggins says, “It’s a dangerous business, going out of your door; if you don’t keep your feet, there is no telling where you might be swept off to.” The same is true for reading. The possibility of failure, of being swept off somewhere terrible, should not discourage us from the task. In fact, it should encourage us. We are not made for comfort, but for greatness—as Pope Benedict XVI said. And greatness is only attainable where there is risk. How we look at the past, how we read, are not exceptions to this rule. They might even prove it.

People are discontented with our civilization in its current state. They want to see what the world and the Church were like before now. There are various motivations for that desire, of course. For some, it may be because they feel convicted that it was “better back then”; for others, that they simply want to know what it was like—how did people talk and think, how did they tell stories, how did they argue, how did they see the world and our place in it, in other times and other places? Whatever the motivation might be, the question is the same: “Where did we come from?” In response, Cluny presents books and says, “Take and read.” And people do.

TOH: On your site, you describe Cluny’s editions as “restorations,” as opposed to “facsimile republications” such as one might find from other publishers with a somewhat similar philosophy as Cluny’s. Can you develop that point?

Clarke: There are certainly areas of life where Chesterton’s remark, “If a thing is worth doing, it is worth doing badly,” applies nicely. But reprinting books is surely not one of them. In our distinction between restoration and facsimile republications, it is really “facsimile” which is the operative word. If I hand you a book and say, “Enjoy this facsimile republication of Dickens’ Our Mutual Friend,” and you open it expecting to look (and feel) like your copy of Theology of Home—like a proper book, in other words—you are in for a sad surprise. The facsimile republication is merely a printed-and-bound bundle of photocopies of the original work. All that was required to produce it was a scanner, a printer, and a casual disregard for craftsmanship and quality.

Needless to say, the traditional publishing process of a book requires more than that. It requires that the text be word-smithed, typeset, designed, and then printed and bound appropriately. Although all of our “republications” have already gone through this process at least once in the past, Cluny does it all over again—thus restoring the text to the glory it once enjoyed as a “new” book. We digitize the text from the original edition, edit it, and freshly typeset it (often with inspiration from the original typography design). Just because a book can be read online as a PDF, courtesy of Google Books, or cheaply and conveniently obtained in print form from that selfsame PDF, same doesn’t mean that it has to be read that way—let alone that it should be read that way. Republishing may have fallen far from the hand-copied, meticulously illuminated editions of the monastic age, but Cluny aims to show “yet a more excellent way.”

TOH: What do you look for in discerning which books to pursue for restoration? Can you tell us about one that was particularly exciting to you?

Clarke: In this area, Cluny is really not so different from its publishing peers. We look to publish good books. Books that tell powerful stories and tell them well; books that proclaim the goodness and beauty of creation and man’s place in it; books that confront the mystery of evil and human malevolence, and do not shy away; books that reveal, however unintentionally, intention, the strengths and weaknesses of particular schools of thought, ideologies, and cultural practices; books that teach us how to think, how to pray, how to love; and, above all, books that prompt a closer adherence to, and better imitation of, the Lord Jesus Christ. To each of these “types,” I could assign a book (or books) in the Cluny catalog—from Rumer Godden’s In This House of Brede and Caryll Houselander’s The Flowering Tree, through Ronald Knox’s Bridegroom and Bride and Pope John Paul II’s Sign of Contradiction, to Caroline Gordon’s How to Read a Novel and Paul Horgan’s Things As They Are.

All of the above were grand adventures to restore in beautiful new editions. But for “particularly exciting,” perhaps the most exciting of all, I have to give the nod to a book that we just released: Monsignor Ronald Knox’s God and the Atom. Originally published in 1945, right after the dropping of the atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, God and the Atom was one of the first theological considerations of the atomic age and the ramifications and risks of atomic weaponry and proliferation.

I spent the summer of 2022 reading American Prometheus, the biography of J. Robert Oppenheimer, father of the atomic bomb—which served as the basis for this summer 2023’s blockbuster, Oppenheimer. Since then, I have been fascinated by the man and his accomplishment. They defy easy assessment. How can we make sense of such a paradoxical combination of greatness and weakness? Knox’s book has to be the earliest attempt to answer that question, albeit with no attention to Oppenheimer himself. Interestingly, though, it does reveal commonalities between the American scientist and the English monsignor. Both believed that the atomic age demanded that mankind receive a new spirit, that we exchange our stony hearts for true hearts. Oppenheimer did not, as far as we know, trust in God, whose presence and goodness Knox preached, to accomplish that change. I wonder if he might have, had someone in the War Office given him the book, God and the Atom.


TOH: The covers are exquisite among your catalogue of books. Obviously beauty is a high priority at Cluny. Can you tell us about the process of matching the book to a cover, in particular, and about the priority of beauty, in general in your publishing?

Clarke: That is such a generous compliment. Thank you. The Cluny design team of Clarke & Clarke (which is my mother, Kathleen, and myself) takes tremendous pride in the work of creating those covers. Of course, we can lay claim only to partial credit, as the artworks are obviously not our creation, but that of geniuses like Rembrandt and Caravaggio, Zurbarán and El Greco, van Gogh and Cézanne, Sargent and J. M. W. Turner, the Pre-Raphaelites and so many others. As we go through the options (and there are always many options) for each cover, we are looking for a piece that is visually representative of the text and complementary to its themes and setting, its mood and tone, and, as much as possible, to its author and characters.

Everyone is told not to judge a book by its cover. When we design a Cluny book, we do so with the expectation that everyone will judge that book by its cover. The whole cover design, from the artwork and color palette to the typefaces and their positioning, should possess its own integrity but also be a harmonious whole with the text it binds. And it should invite you to read; it should make you want to pick up the book and know what it’s all about. In a nutshell, that’s what our process aims to achieve.

The priority of beauty. I had to think about this one. Here goes nothing…

We typically think of books as means either of entertainment or of edification; we think similarly about art: a work of art is there either to entertain us or to edify us. In a certain sense, though, that “either-or” is not really accurate. Because entertainment and edification can each be a means of education—the means by which we are drawn out of ourselves and into (or at least toward) a participation into something greater than ourselves.

The kind of art that Cluny employs in its cover designs—primarily paintings by the Great Masters—have a proven track record, so to speak, offering that kind of education. Sadly, however, it is a kind of education that still too few of us receive. Living in the age that we do, the Internet age, with all the artistic treasures of all time available for online viewing online, we can trick ourselves into thinking we are receiving that education, or even that we already have received it—we got the knowledge. But do we see that education on display in our cities, our churches, or our homes? Are we literate about art? Do we know it when we see it? Or are we content with the facsimile?

My mother has an expansive collection of coffee-table art books. I say collection but that almost seems a misnomer—giving the impression that it was something intentional, almost agenda-driven. “This house will have art!” It wasn’t like that at all, really. In fact, I don’t recall them even being on the coffee-table all that often; their usual location was a basket somewhere in the living room, or on a table in the entry. Their presence was casual, familiar—and powerful. The kinds of paintings you see on the covers of Cluny books, these are creations of genius; they are works of beauty. They are also the stuff of a child’s dreams and imaginings and they can color and decorate his world for as long as he lives—provided he feeds on them as a matter of course. And that provision serves as inspiration for our process to put such works on the covers of our books. Van Gogh, Dürer, Raphael, Homer, Reubens, Bruegel, Degas, Vermeer—their works can be viewed and thought of as museum pieces; they can also be seen and treasured as friends, in your own home and in your own mind.

Gonzalo Bilbao’s The Christening, Jindrîch Tomec’s Mass at St. Stephen’s Cathedral, and Anna Ancher’s Sunlight in the Blue Room: It is better to know these paintings than not to know them. I am, somehow, more human for knowing them, more capable of thinking about and reaching for those heights that I have been made to attain. If I didn’t have children of my own, I might hesitate to universalize that comment. But I do have children of my own—and I see, on a daily basis, that this comment applies to them. Their contact with beautiful stuff impels them forward—and forward to something better. That stuff is not something that should be kept inside a museum or inside the flaps of a book; it should be on the front of the book, too.

TOH: You also have a beautiful stationery line. What else do you see in the future for Cluny? 

Clarke: More of the same! We plan to further expand the stationery line with new cards for Easter and springtime. Working on those as the liturgical calendar turned to Lent and the natural calendar remained frozen in Winter (at least here in New England) was a real comfort, I have to say. More of the same goes for our books, too. We expect another fifty titles to grace the catalog before this year is out. Just for myself, I’m especially excited for the new editions of Paul Horgan’s Saintmaker’s Christmas Eve (from 1955: a beautiful story of a Christmas miracle, set in early-nineteenth-century New Mexico); Ethel Cook Eliot’s The Wind Boy (from 1923: a delightful fantasy for young readers, deserving of comparison to Lewis and Rumer Godden’s books for children); A. J. Cronin’s novel The Keys of the Kingdom (from 1941: the moving story of a Scottish priest’s missionary efforts in China); Caryll Houselander’s A Rocking-Horse Catholic (from 1955: the autobiography of that fascinating twentieth-century mystic and poet, dubbed the “divine eccentric”); and the Benedictine monk Adalbert de Vogüé’s To Love Fasting (from 1989: a truly remarkable—and concise—consideration of fasting and why the practice, done properly, is actually loveable).

As for Cluny’s wider future, the future beyond this year or the next three years, the answer doesn’t really change. More of the same. The world is changing in profound, even radical, ways. Our media will be hard-pressed to follow those changes, let alone to anticipate them, or attack them, or simply address them in meaningful ways. To do so will, in all likelihood, require that media purveyors change as well. And that includes Cluny—even though our “media” is not new media, but old media—the oldest media, books. But my hope is that the change affects only how we do things, not what we do, and that we will still be making many books (and note-cards) many years hence, keeping alive the fire of tradition, sharing its light and heat ever more widely, for our good and the good of God’s saving plan.

Readers who want to keep up with these happenings (and more) should consider signing up for our mailing list. (They can also take advantage of our sign-up offer and save 30% on their first order.)

TOH: Anything else we should know about your work?

Clarke: Given how much I have already said, the words of Mr. Bennet seem fitting: “You have delighted us long enough.” But I will say just one thing more.

One question that both my business-partner, Scott Thompson, and myself often field is: “Is Cluny your actual, full-time job, or is it something you do alongside other jobs?” It is, in fact, our actual, full-time job, and it supports us and our families. Our work is deeply personal. It is the fruit of the faith we have received and the lives we have chosen. We have young children—Scott and his wife, Emily, have four kids; my wife, Susannah, and I have four kids—and we want them to read. So does every parent. We want them to read good books. And so does every parent. But we—the parents, the adults, the gatekeepers, the stewards—we also need to read. No one who says, “I’m just not a reader,” is what they say they are. We are all readers; the only question is whether we read well; and the determination of our reading well is that we have good books to read.

That’s how the work Cluny is doing is personal to the two of us, who really—in the grand scheme of things—have no special qualifications for this work. Because we believe that our “making of many books,” our recovery of old, neglected, or forgotten books, is something important. That by making these books, as much as by reading them, we are satisfying a fundamental human urge, like Peter Bailey says in It’s a Wonderful Life: “It’s deep in the race for a man to want his own roof and walls and fireplace, and we’re helping him get those things in our shabby little office.” The same is true, we think, of reading stories that tell us where we came from as well as something about where we are and something about where we are going. That’s our work; that’s why we love it.

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