Thursday, May 10, 2007

At the Turin Book Fair

For the past 20 years, Turin, Italy has held a book fair which by now has become quite well known and well attended. In fact, today, the first day of the fair, there were times when the crowd was crushing. It is especially interesting to attend such a fair in a world where 1) there is still a strong reverence for the book and 2) there are probably as many authors as there are readers. I am astonished at the number of what appear to be small presses. There are four large exhibit halls, and from my first pass through it appears that everyone in Italy has written a book.

I came here to think about The Book (and to eat salame). Instead, I'm finding that my thoughts are not so much on the book itself but on the process of production. What strikes me here, and what struck me when I attended the Paris book fair some years ago, is the importance of the publishing house, rather than the individual title. A few months ago in Venice I went into a bookstore looking to find anything they had on the topic of the history of the book. The clerk had to take me all around the store to select a few titles because the store was organized not by topic but by publisher. However, even in a store where the books are shelved by topic, you can easily recognize the publishers because each one has a distinctive cover style.

It's not the individual book that counts, but the context of that book; the editorial context. Authors are discoveries, greatly prized and carefully taken care of, but not separate from the publisher who, in the great tradition of Pygmalion, has turned them into a refined cultural asset. And for sure, the selling point is not the flash of the cover, but the fact of belonging to a known intellectual tradition.

OK, I'm getting maudlin. Maybe it's the jet lag.

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