Fahrenheit 2009 Part II: Digital Debate

 

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Michael Jackson and Countess Donhöff at eye level

The Fair is business, but it is also a celebration of the convergence two creative impulses, that of the book printers and designers, and that of the authors themselves. A children’s book by a South Korean authoress catches my eye, a tale about a girl with a fox on her head. A simple tale, not trying to be funny, just delightfully illustrated. Non-book articles are also a source of genuine creativity, but Hall 4.0 is just out of my two-day range, so I can only gaze briefly. The business of bookselling, too, requires genuine skill. Many publishers still have the courage and backbone to do less popular projects, Michael Jackson thus finds a spot next to a bio of Hitler-opponent Countess Marion Donhöff (biographies are big anyway, I suspect we are always curious about what other people are doing). On that score, the Book Fair never seems to change. But each year, it has a few big issues to confront

Off the books: liber digitalis 

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Enthusiastic lip service about iPhone cookbooks

The big buzz, of course, is the inexorable progress of the digital soldier ants through the old, old market structures of the printing industry. Its all about  eBooks, iBooks, Web-based books and Internet-based business models, and the biggest elephant in the room: the Kindle, born on the 19th of October. A small amount of space, about 2000 square feet (about 200 square meters)  is devoted to “Books & Bytes.” It exhibits several possibilities for reading electronic books, but none yet really replicate “the book feeling.” You can’t thumb pages quickly (yet), or find a page serendipitously. And if they fall over the side of a bed, for example, they may well break. Vodafone is promising to send end-users novels on their mobile phones (I’ll try and then report), and three experts in the field of cooking – there we go again – discussed the sheer brilliance of having recipes with great pics beamed to your iPhone. “You can take it along with you when shopping…”  one of them says. Next innovation down this line: the plastic cover to protect the device from spatter. Whatever: I suspect that next year, Amazon and Google, once odd fellows, now giant players, will probably own half of Hall 3.0… And watch for the next development promised by the Wi-Fi Alliance (Intel, Apple, Cisco are the main culprits) from Silicon Valley: Wi-Fi Direct. This system will, if I understand it correctly, piggyback Wi-Fi from one enabled device to the other, no need for Bluetooth, no need for Wi-Fi in some cases, no fuss, no muss, and a lot of electronic garbage from the last generation of innovative junk.

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Those pesky hardcopy books
 All this e-stuff naturally raises the hackles of more traditional folk. Philosophers, perhaps, should start getting involved, but they are too busy these days eking out a living as taxi drivers, key account managers, down-and-out editors and business gurus. The authors’ societies (and hence the authors and rights holders) are justifiably worried. Google’s book digitizing project is quite controversial… The Fair edition of The Bookseller has an interview with Tom Turvey, director of strategic partnerships at Google, regarding the pending Book Settlement. He is naturally eager for rights holders to sign into the Google library – and admittedly there are some who believe firmly that Google is acting as the world’s e-brarian out of pure altruism, just as there are those who believe that Windows Vista is an improvement over XP.  “Rights holders are obviously free to make whatever decision they wish,” says Turvey (thank you master!). “We believe the public benefits when rights holders have the choice to participate or not in its (the Settlement’s) terms and there is competition in the digital book space.” Right. The question is, what happens to the rights holders who decide not to cast in their lot with Google. Turvey is not clear about that, but he does have a very nice smile on his face. He must be a nice man. And he works in the upper echelons of a company with a very cute name.
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Future libraries for the digi-incrowd

 

The hellish vision: A digital content aggregator puts together novels and fact books that can be downloaded onto books with Wii-like pages that replicate turning. No fuss, no muss with those greedy authors, sourpuss editors, bean-counting lawyers  and grumpy literary critics. The lovers of real books will simply become the savages in the year X of Our Google. And that is the point made by Dr. Christian Sprang, legal adviser at the Stock Exchange Association of the German Book Trade at a debate on the thrid day of the Fair. He wants rights holders to have an opt-in option, not just the opt-out one. And Professor Roland Reuss simply says Google has broken the law by digitizing books without permission.

Interlude

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Joseph E. Hanhart, still in the savannah of real print

Niches.  The last refuge of the real book in the future? The Book Fair is full of them, and some still smell of printer’s ink, of hot presses, of red wine and even a touch of sulphur. Meet Joseph E. Hanhart of Editions Heuwinkel from Carouge (by Geneva), Switzerland. His bright blue eyes are full of humor, he still holds books in a firm yet loving manner. He publishes art books in varying sizes, each done with great care. The program also includes books on yoga and on Switzerland. He feels the market does need the diversity and he is optimistic. “In nature, you have brush and you have tall, visible trees,” he points out, “and without the grasses, the weeds and all that stuff, those tall trees could not survive.” But nature and human nature are two different shoes as they say in German.  We will eat up our entire planet, suck out its entrails and raze its forests just to get hamburgers cheaply and fuel to run our cars.

And so we get onto talking about bigger things. Hanhart is a genial storyteller in at least three languages. He suddenly mentions the 450th anniversary of the University of Geneva, which was founded by Calvin. One of the speakers was Stephen Hawking. Someone in the audience asked what god was doing before his seven days of heavy labor. “Preparing hell for the likes of you,” answered Hawking. Asymmetrical juxtapositions replacing dialectics.

 

Please check Part III: Chinese Checkers

Frankfurt Bookfair: Fahrenheit 2009

Bookfir-reder

Strange quirk of fate. Bookish people are usually typed as barely noticeable, mousy folk, shrinking violets, wall flowers, and even worms. Yet they are eminently visible in Germany especially around the time of the Frankfurt Book Fair. On the train up to the city of banks, there were at least three in the compartment I boarded. One, a tall man, bald with very techno-specs, perhaps business something-or other. He had a luggage dolly the size of a small forklift with thick tyres. I took a seat at a table with, opposite me, an editor slaving away on some manuscripts in Spanish and French and a facial expression that said “Don’t talk to me.”  But we did end up conversing in a strange manner. We talked about the business of publishing, the eminent threat of eBooks Trade fair tower in Frankfurtand iPhones and other toys and the problems we encountered. Hers seemed to be vaguely related to too much work. Mine with editors not bothering to answer their emails. “We are overworked, I sometimes don’t even open my mails, there are so many,” she retorted, tersely. Well, I think, how much would it cost to hire someone to do it, lord knows, there are enough intelligent and capable people out of work right now. But instead, I point out that Hermann Hesse, besides all the novels and stories and poems, also wrote 35,000 letters on an old black typewriter. She looks at me: “I hate Hesse,” she says, and ends the conversation by staring intently at her manuscripts.

Ten years since I was at the Book Fair, and my 5th visit in all. It remains the awesome orgy of the publishing industry, though there is a slightly melancholy air to it. Unless you hit the aisles with the esotericists, the politicals, the cooks. At my last visit, over 8,500 companies were there with their wares, some of the booths exuded the swirling energy of a Viennese waltz.  But this year, the number of exhibitors was 6,936, while the number of titles was around 401,000, and there was quite enough space to move around in the great halls, a sign of serious slowing down. Many exhibitors mentioned this, hoping  for more traffic during the weekend, when the fair is opened to the general public. I suspect they let in school classes on day 2 just  to cook the books. An awful lot of people wearing ratty backpacks and too young and smiling to be editors, publishers, agents  or journalists were stalling traffic in the aisles.

 Expeditions

The booths come in all sizes, from single-author 1-square-meter cubby holes,  to somewhat bombastic installations with full-fledged catering. Some have sofas, others little bistro tables decked out with cookies. Posters are everywhere, the biggest ones are devoted to the surefire hits, like the newest Dan Brown novel in German translation, which I will not read, having had to abandon both the Da Vinci Code and some book with a title involving the word digital because it read like something written by a bored high school kid.  I saunter through the publisher’s hall where the Anglo-Saxons are located with their especially beautiful coffee table books and a plethora of children’s books. I read about a dragon who is too hot he can make toast. I find little books that can float and others that open up into 3D scenes. Some make music. One publisher produces books shaped like basketballs and footballs. Several booths are offering clip-on book lights. I manage to convince one marketing manageress to let me have the last copy of a certain book in a series that my daughter adores.

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Marcel Reich-Ranicki, the biggest figure in German lit crit

At the Press Center, Hoffman & Campe’s Günter Berg opened the ceremonies with a major coup: 89-year-old Marcel Reich-Ranicki, Germany’s one-man supreme court for literary decisions – who last year shocked the country by refusing a prize from the TV industry – is talking about the value of the old classics. He originally launched a series with the works of  Kafka, Lessing, Kleist, Heine, Büchner and Schiller with Suhrkamp, but after a disagreement with the editor there, he took his ideas to H&C (except Schiller, which remained. Reich-Ranicki is sparing in his words, like someone who has returned to the basics after a lifetime of complexity. Readers will be astonished what they will find in those classics. Goethe is not on his list, because he cannot be categorized. As for the Nobel Prize winner, laconically he confesses he has not read her works, so it’s no comment from him. He seems very tired and as always, slightly bored. Hardly astonishing considering his own biography.

Leon de Winter at discussing his work in public
Leon de Winter discussing his work

I go out and begin looking around for Herta Müller’s works, for a large, distinctive poster, for some lights and joy and celebration. There is none. I stumble across new novels that seem to be inspired from the pains of mid-life crises. There are sensationalist books about the crisis and the naughtiness of bankers, books with big red titles that promise the world and deliver steam. I come across author and commentator Leon de Winter mentioning the gradual separation of US Jews and the Israeli Jews, whom he describes as “warriors”. This all has to do with his vocal opposition to multiculturalism, surely, but it sounds like preening. He is sitting on the stage of the Frankfurter Allgemeine, which is staunchly conservative.   I wander off, and a few minutes later, a young, very thin woman hands me a tiny book with excerpts from an erotic novel about some killer who has sex with her victims. Three sentences into the hormonal brew is enough to convince me that this is more emetic than erotic. Speaking of which: Cookbooks are ubiquitous. Many publishers seem to have them as a kind of security line. I find a woman is cutting prosciutto at one booth, Schinken (ham) in German refers to a big book… It’s meant to be funny, I guess, but she is not laughing.

 

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Cookbooks

 

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The ham-cutter

 

Many booths are devoted to spiritual topics − entire stands are concerned with every religion under the sun − many to family life.  A cursory glance down any of the aisles reveals a plethora of gimmicky books, how-tos, silly books for depositing near the toilet, biographies of personalities who should never have come that far, but did thanks to heavens knows what. Books devopted to serious music, pop anthologies, books for listening, tchotchkes of all sorts. And there are the serious novels and old standards. Quite a lot of material by and about women, gender balance, gender imbalance, gender and business… And suddenly, I find a shelf filled with a book about a dad in his middle age dealing with the ups and downs of family life, the contrasts, taking down the garbage one minute and having to morph into a fiery lover the next…  This could be interesting. I browse, noting that the writing is in short, grumpy sentences, which is like reading the mind-numbing signs on a passing freight train. Whoever wrote this has spent too much time listening to techno with ear buds. Bolder print suddenly suggests that you are not a man if you haven’t killed, skinned and cooked an animal. This is Hollywood “bildungs-cinema” at its worst, a slightly milder form of those bizarre, repetitive Vietnam flicks like Platoon and Full Metal Jacket, where some guy has to discover the meaning of life by doing war against hordes of anonymous foreigners (of darker skin). I imagine the author with a fake Japanese gangster tattoo and an earring. Oh, well.

Please visit part II: Digital Debate

Sailing Past

Waiting in a billowing sea
Waiting in a billowing sea

 Sailing Past

Life can be quite unpredictable. One minute, Robert Watt, 31, a world-class bagpiper from Northern Ireland,was at a festival in Switzerland entertaining the crowds. A few days later he was standing on the bow of a century-old sailing yacht a quarter-mile off the coast near Monaco playing Scotland the Brave into a grayish sky. Had the ghost of a Scottish sailor been haunting the Mediterranean that afternoon, he would have no doubt wondered if he hadn’t imbibed too much single malt before heading down the Low Road. For there, on the mellifluous, deep-blue sea, was not one, but rather an entire armada of venerable old sailing yachts interspersed with vintage Riva and Craft speedboats, their gas-guzzling V-8 engines gurgling happily in the water.

Rivas -- elegance without aggression
Rivas ready to pounce
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Signora del Vento on course

From September 16-20, while the media was still busy figuring out where the financial markets’ liquidity has gone to, Monaco, a hub of international finance and individuals in high income brackets, was turning its attention to the joys of its bi-annual ritual, the Monaco Classic Week.  This is not merely an ostentatious exhibition of lucre, filthy or otherwise.  It is a meeting of serious sailors and fans of classic motor yachts, schooners, gaff-cutters, ketches and other sail yachts, and classic speed boats, as well. Some famous vessels were on display, such as the Pen Duick, the first vessel owned by the late solo Atlantic crosser Eric Tabarly, and the Eleonora, an exact replica of the Westward, a racing schooner built in 1910.  They were joined by training ships, like the Russian steel-hull windjammer Sedov, which once hauled grain and coal across the Atlantic under German flag, or the three mast Italian Signora del Vento, built in Poland in 1962. Another Italian bark was also in port, the Palinuro. Continue reading “Sailing Past”