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Writer Andrei Codrescu donates literary works to U. of I. Library

Andrea Lynn, Humanities Editor


Miranda Remnek
Click photo to enlarge
Photo by Kwame Ross

Miranda Remnek,  the head of the U. of I. Slavic and East European Library and coordinator of the Andrei Codrescu collection, stands in front of the new acquisition of literary materials that Codrescu recently donated to the library. After the collection is processed, Remnek plans to produce a Web catalog for it.

CHAMPAIGN, Ill. — If it’s possible to know a person by the books he reads, patrons of one of the world’s largest libraries soon could be on a first-name basis with an award-winning author, commentator and observer-provocateur.

Andrei Codrescu, the prolific poet-novelist-essayist and widely recognized radio celebrity, has given his collection of Romanian books, periodicals, films and other materials to the Library of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. The Library has more than 10 million volumes, making it the largest public university collection in the world.

Although most of the 660 items Codrescu donated are in Romanian, his native tongue, the collection also includes books in English and other languages, including some of the author’s own writings.

A few of the rare titles of poetry, fiction, non-fiction and journals
Click photo to enlarge
Photo by Kwame Ross
A few of the rare titles of poetry, fiction, non-fiction and journals that prolific writer and radio essayist Andrei Codrescu gave the U. of I. Library are shown. Most of the materials are in Romanian and many are rare and were produced by small publishing houses.

The publications are mostly contemporary – written since the fall of dictatorship in Romania in 1989 – and many were produced by small publishing houses. Nearly half of the materials are rare – not documented anywhere else in the United States.

Codrescu’s collection, like his writing, is eclectic. Roughly half consists of poetry, with smaller amounts of fiction and non-fiction. Much of the material – 38 different titles – consists of literary journals and magazines. There is a smattering of museum catalogs, drama and documentaries, even a political joke book and a cookbook.

Codrescu gave his collection to Illinois because he recognized it as an “institution of strength” in terms of Slavic materials after a visit to the campus in 2004. It is a serendipitous time for such a gift, since Illinois’ Library has been expanding its focus “precisely in Balkan and Southeast European studies,” said Miranda Remnek, the head of the U. of I. Slavic and East European Library and coordinator of the Codrescu collection.

While Illinois already owns about one-fourth of the titles in Codrescu’s collection, the new books “add significantly” to Illinois’ materials by prominent modern Romanian novelists, including Norman Manea, Remnek said.

Manea was deported to a Ukrainian internment camp at age 5. His fiction deals with the Holocaust and with daily life in a totalitarian state. The new acquisition contains 11 of his books – several in English, including “The Hooligan’s Return” and “On Clowns.”

One of the collections’ most delightful books is “Postcards From America,” written and illustrated by Dan Perjovschi. The book reproduces 200 of the 1,000 vignette “postcards” the Romanian artist made and publicly displayed every day of his 10-week stay in the United States in 1994. He does with his cartoons what Codrescu does in his commentaries: draws attention to the unusual, even absurd, in everyday American life.

Perjovschi inscribed his book to Codrescu with a line drawing of himself, and he tucked in a two-page letter.

About 40 of Codrescu’s books contain such personal items: inscriptions, notes and letters from the authors to Codrescu, many of them “expressing their engagement and disengagement with contemporary Romanian life,” Remnek said.

According to Remnek, the Codrescu gift is “a very exciting development for the Library, and for several reasons.”

First, the collection is “interesting in its own right,” she said, since it includes many small-press editions by contemporary Romanian poets writing after the fall of communism. “It presents a colorful vignette of the issues currently faced by a range of Romanian intellectuals, and in a time of uncertainty, but also promise,” Remnek said.

The collection also is important because it is “the handiwork of Codrescu, whose celebrity and highly imaginative literary persona are well-known in many circles.” The writer has extensive contacts with Romanian intellectuals, Remnek said, and promises to draw on them “to help expand the richness of the collection.”

As he told her: “In fact, I can see the beginning of a passion. I would like this collection to be the best.”

The MacCurdy Distinguished Professor of English at Louisiana State University, Codrescu donated his personal papers and English-language books to LSU’s library, which does not have a specialization in Slavic or Balkan studies.

The U. of I. acquisition ties in with other efforts the Library is making to provide greater support for Balkan studies. These include subscribing to a major East European database and librarian Janice Pilch assuming an additional role as Librarian for South Slavic Studies.

Housed in the Rare Book and Special Collections Library, the Codrescu Collection was acquired by the Slavic Library, which, with 755,000 volumes and more than 3,500 serial publications, is the largest Slavic and East European collection west of Washington, D.C., and the second or third largest among U.S. universities.

Born in 1946 in Sibiu, a small town in the Transylvania region of Romania, Codrescu immigrated to the United States in 1966, and became a U.S. citizen in 1981.

He has written four volumes of poetry, four of fiction, four of memoirs and travelogues, eight volumes of essays and five anthologies. He also wrote and starred in “Road Scholar,” a Peabody Award-winning movie. The New York Times Book Review called him “one of our most prodigiously talented and magical writers.”

Codrescu has won many awards, including the Pushcart Prize (1980 and 1983) and the ACLU Freedom of Speech Award (1995).

Codrescu writes commentary and book reviews for many national publications and continues his popular weekly commentaries on NPR, does a commentary for “Nightline” and appears regularly on popular late-night talk shows.

One of the things Codrescu laments about his adopted country is the loss of personal stories – “Our own individual stories.” He calls it one of the saddest things about the contemporary world and blames the problem partly on television.

“… All those stories are disappearing because we don’t have the time for them,” Codrescu told writer David Holzel. “And that’s a tragedy, because people without stories are machines.”