This article was originally published in Italian on Bookavenue
The world needs dialogue and coloring books…
Everything starts on the airplane. There’s a rustle of pages and catalogues, books being extracted from the trolleys, and pens making CLICK. My antennas intercept the presence of booksellers, journalists, writers, and publishers. By my side sits a man who’s reading literary articles. In a few minutes we start a conversation and after the flight I have the necessary telephone numbers and the tips to face the book fair. We say good-bye to each other without revealing our names, like two subversive readers in Farenheit 451, tacitly united in the project of saving books from fire
My task for Bookavenue is above all to understand the way the wind is blowing among the Italian stands concerning this topic: is there a future for books, reading, booksellers, and bookshops? The evening before I read some articles on the Italian press. The first one is a collection of numbers and percentages that serve to demonstrate that, since the beginning of the year, even in Italy the fall of paper books has stopped and the rise of digital books has slowed down. And above all, the independent bookshops are coming to life again. So… good news.
On the other hand, the second article I read covers an international and more delicate subject. 2015 is the year in which writers from all over the world have already split up about PEN Prize for Freedom of Expression to the survival staff of Charlie Hebdo. Thus the Book Fair’s Director has made a strong choice assigning the opening speech to Salman Rushdie, the voice that most thundered – in May – against an idea of freedom of expression limited by “political correctness”. Salman Rushdie, the author of those Satanic Verses that in 1989 earned him a fatwa – still pending – from Khomeini. And again Salman Rushdie, for the presence of whom Iran has withdrawn its participation to the Fair (I will see a bunch of empty stands with great sheets saying I love Mohammad).
But what you see entering the greatest and most crowded pavilions (the Anglophone ones) has nothing in common with a Vanity Fair. Everywhere you can find self-help books, coaching manuals, spirituality texts, mindfulness guides, and above all coloring books for adults. It seems that Western countries need to come out of an inner crisis, meditate, rejoin the “Universe” and find an harmony that in the publishing industry evidently expresses itself through coloring books. Every stand has at least one coloring book, no matter the publishing house. There’s a sense of change more than freakiness, but perhaps the change isn’t mature, yet. It seems a necessity to compare West and East again about all the aspects of life (job, family, medicine, spirituality… ), but it apparently doesn’t concern reality.
Yeah, reality… by the way, where are science books? I examine all the stands in the Anglophone pavilions, without exceptions. Australia, Canada, United States of America, Great Britain… Politics and international affairs are highly rated but… where’s the environmental issue? Where are climate changes, environmental illnesses, the problem of water, the seeds, and the wars for food? Why do they expose so many politics if they don’t show that contemporary world which is the RESULT of politics?
An old woman calls me from her small stand. She shows me a picture in a book: it is a photo of herself at the age of four. The enchanting similarity with Toni Morrison would be sufficient for me to forget everything else, put a teapot on the camp stove (there are so many teapots in this area… ), and spend here the rest of the afternoon, but ten meters away from me Navid Kermani is speaking. Navid Kermani: German essayist, son of Iranian immigrants, and Middle East expert. He is at the Book Fair to receive the Peace Prize of the German Book Trade from the Association of German Publishers and Booksellers, again a famous prize assigned to the promotion of intercultural and interreligious dialogue.
But let’s proceed, because in pavilion 5 my heart starts beating fast. Here I speak Italian. Entering I see the stand of E/O Publishing House, where a woman reminds me of the rare pictures of Anita Raja. Anita Raja… fabulous translator and probably the real name of Elena Ferrante, the mysterious Italian writer who has enchanted America. Then I reach a huge stand – the Gruppo Editoriale Mauri Spagnol – and ask for an interview. The director in person comes out to speak with me. I ask him if it’s true, if we are really coming out of the crisis and if independent bookshops are really rising again. “Absolutely true”, he says. He explains to me that market surveys have revealed an inversion of tendency during the last nine months. The rise of digital books has stopped, but above all more Italian books are being published. “The prevalence is fiction”, he says, “because essays have fallen a little after the end of the Berlusconi emergency. Under Berlusconi, people wanted to be informed. Now, Renzi anaesthetizes the country”. I ask him if it’s the case to be optimistic. He smiles as he knows a thing or two: “Better to be cautious with optimism, but yes… I’m optimistic. Large retailers amplify phenomena, but do not create them. Best-sellers are still created in the bookshops. It’s the booksellers, the well-educated and competent ones – who make the books rise. I must confess that I sometimes buy online, because I have no free time. But when I search for something special… I ask to my trusty bookseller. He knows what could be interesting for me and tells me: <<Here you are, you MUST read this one>>. Who could ever substitute such a figure?”
Before coming back home, I walk across the pavilion of the host country 2015, Indonesia. An installation fills the hall with huge, light-blue paper lamps that are hanging over a lake of shadow. Open books emerge from the darkness like luminous treasure chests. On every lamp dominate the words of a writer. The room is filled with the poetry and pain of Indonesia, but above all it is full of poetry that celebrates itself. Just walking here makes me think that the magic of books, reading, and good booksellers… will never end. It seems that readers and booksellers are destined to come out from the woods where they hid in Farenheit 451. It is time for books, says this room, in every form. I’ve arrived here after having observed that every corner of the Fair was saying the same thing: literary imagination is the weapon of peaceful men and women against war and darkness.
An open book, illuminated from above. This is the only picture I decide to take home with me.