We are saddened to announce the passing of long-time UC Press editor and former editorial director Bill McClung. Bill was also, up until its recent closure due to the pandemic, the proprietor of iconic Berkeley independent bookstore University Press Books (often presumed to be, but not affiliated with UC Press) for 46 years.

With his sharp, creative spirit, Bill was a vital force at the Press for decades, including the initiation of UC Press’s collaboration with the Mark Twain Papers, conceiving of short book format series Quantum Books, and acquiring many formidable projects during his tenure, including The Plan of St. Gall.  Following are reflections from former UC Press editor Jack Miles, as well as one of Bill’s friends, Ken Krabbe. A virtual memorial for Bill will be held August 8 at 2pm PT (please RSVP here, where you can also express your condolences, well wishes, ideas, and offerings to Bill’s family and friends).

Ken Krabbe remembering Bill McClung

Dear Bay Area Literary Friends,

I’m sorry to inform you that our friend Bill McClung has died. Those of you who have been in my book groups will be quite familiar with him. Others of you who never met him may have visited the bookstore that he cofounded.

Bill was a founding partner of University Press Bookstore (UPB) in Berkeley. He also worked many years as an editor for the University of California Press. The bookstore recently closed. It had been struggling financially for the last several years, and the corona crisis made it impossible to continue. Just as that was happening (March-April of this year), Bill had a stroke. He seemed to be recovering fairly well during the last couple months, but the stroke and other health issues finally were too much. He was in his early eighties.

I first met Bill eight years ago when my Zen friend Patrick McMahon started a group study of Proust’s In Search of Lost Time, which met around the Big Table that Bill had had specially built to fit into the cozy back room of the bookstore. The Proust group lasted four years, followed by four years of my “Exploring the Classics” group (which is currently continuing via Zoom), along with a number of other groups (Bob Meyer’s two-year exploration of Joyce’s Ulysses, Joel Altman’s Shakespeare readings, Brenda Hillman’s Emily Dickenson group, etc.), in addition to countless author appearances, panels on various topics, “slow reading” dinners, etc. During its nearly half-century of existence, the store functioned as a wonderful community cultural center —and Bill McClung was at the heart of it the whole time. He attended most of the events and took part in many of the ongoing groups, in addition to making sure that we were always supplied with an abundance of wines, along with tasty sandwiches and ginger cookies from the nextdoor Musical Offering Café (with which he was also closely associated, and which is currently continuing to operate by offering gourmet dinners to go).

Bill was particularly fond of reading aloud. After we had gotten into one of our lively but sometimes excessively drawn out debates about some aspect of Proust or Montaigne or Defoe or Whitman, he would often chime in: “Let’s get back to some more reading aloud!”

When UPB partners, employees, and friends debated the future of the store, Bill was always the most fervent and optimistic, continually working to elicit more donations or to explore more ideas for reviving and improving the institution that he and others (notably including his wife Karen, who retired a year or two ago after 43 years of working for the store) had worked so hard to maintain. But while the occasional large donation or windfall might postpone the reckoning for a few more months, it was becoming increasingly clear that the store could not continue. The corona crisis was the last nail in the coffin. But I think it was also a relief for Bill. He had done what he could, but now the decision was clear. He could stop worrying about the impossibly high rent, wind down the store’s operation (arranging to sell off the inventory online from a much cheaper location in Oakland), and finally relax.

The friend who informed me of his death said, “He expressed hope, over these last few days, to see the University Press Bookstore movement continue in some form.” Maintaining an actual bookstore is extremely difficult these days, but I do believe that the hundreds of thousands of quality books that UPB sold, and the countless conversations about books and ideas among storeclerks and customers, and the countless reading groups, forums, author appearances, and other events that the store hosted over the last 44 years have already inspired, and will continue to inspire, kindred expressions of the scholarly and humanistic ideals that Bill McClung loved and embodied.

Jack Miles remembering Bill McClung

Bill McClung gave much to many through his long life. In his literate, courtly but quietly witty way, what he gave me as a newcomer to the University of California Press in 1978 was the lasting and inspiring example of a kind of philosopher-in-action of book publishing.  There was, of course, a businessman inside this philosopher. It was not Bill’s way to leave the money-grubbing to underlings, and my, the man could surprise you!

I thought of him some months ago as I read the report of a vast study claiming that, after all, the digital revolution had simply not delivered a dividend of increased productivity at all comparable to earlier technological revolutions. I thought of Bill then because I recall him making very nearly this exact point with specific reference to book publishing at a meeting I attended way back in the mid-1980s. He drily pointed out, for example, that one consequence of the new efficiency allegedly introduced by this wondrous technology was that somehow footnotes had had to become endnotes to the delight of absolutely no one.

I think of this as the quintessential McClung moment, for it combined Bill’s close attention to the numbers with his abiding, loving, life-shaping devotion to the needs and even the rights of the serious reader. There was a nobility about him, in short, that moved me then and moves me still—the nobility uniquely proper to a democracy. May his memory call us all to continue the work and serve the values to which he gave himself so generously and so beautifully.

Donations can be made to University Press Books and/or the Musical Offering to help with their outstanding financial obligations, and to support Bill’s vision of ensuring that books and recorded classical music continue to enrich the life of the mind and spirit in our community.