Book fairs are a very strange phenomenon. There are many, many kinds of trade fairs but it’s likely that there isn’t a kind as diametrically opposed to the basic function that sustains it as a book fair is to the solitary act of reading. One the one hand all this interaction is vitally necessary – linking writers and agents, agents and publishers, publishers and booksellers and media, etc. The only person who really should be submerged in gloomy silence is the writer, who instead is answering questions on stage while malicious insiders whisper the “real” reason it’s taken so long between books and how it wasn’t quite worth the wait.
Being so focused on Central and Eastern Europe and hanging around their stands quite a bit there’s another feature of book fairs that strikes me as a clear litmus test of these countries and their publishing industries, and that is the degree to which they are engaged with the outside world. No one would expect the Belarus stand to have the kind of traffic that Denmark or even the Czech stand had, but as far as I saw they neither had traffic nor wanted any. They sat in a circle and talked to each other as if they were at a restaurant.
Year of book, indeed.
That was hardly a big surprise. But when I went up to the Bulgarian stand and asked about the books, and whether they had any information about titles and any works in translation they told me they didn’t (in any other language) because this was the Bulgarian stand and they wanted to show the Bulgarian language. So you fly a group of people, books, etc. to Germany, pay for hotels, meals to “show the Bulgarian language” to people who can’t understand it (because presumably people who understand it don’t need to have it shown them)?
Where the real work of publishing doesn’t get done – the Belarus stand.
But of course there were some great books and going from booth to booth makes you furious at those idiots who wanted to build the Tower of Babel, because if it hadn’t been for them you could read every single one of these books (though all the interesting translation panels would have been cancelled then – more on that subject tomorrow).
Thank you, Serbian stand, but besides the fact that I don’t speak Serbian I really can’t fit that amazing looking Ivo Andrić boxed set into my carry-on bag.
A shelf of Hungarian books (above). Most stands had either translations or extracts in English to present to foreign publishers. Some shelves were less well-prepared than others though.
The day after I took this the only book left on this shelf was the one on the right (which has a marijuana leaf on the cover). What that means I don’t know.
Speaking of not knowing what something means, what is that box of Susan Sontag which I also can’t fit in my carry-on? Like I said, book fairs are a very strange phenomenon.