Frankfurt Bookfair: Fahrenheit 2009


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.


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.

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.




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
lr-SIgnora del Vento
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”

Chicago Jiu-Jitsu: Obama’s Olympic bid

The distinct sense of glee felt in some of the more vociferous conservative circles at Obama’s journey to Copenhagen to promote Chicago as an Olympic city must have come as a pleasant surprise to the president and his advisers. Just as a cat, once it has caught sight of a moving finger, will follow it almost idiotically, so the right-wing blogs and network started ranting before, during and after the trip.




©Tim Jackson,

There was talk of Chicago’s ghastly crime rate, as if Al Capone was still shifting his weight around the windy city. And when the IOC picked Rio de Janeiro,  Limbaugh whooped, Drudge gloated, and Lou Dobbs punned rather irrelevantly about the ego landing. As for Obama himself, he was no doubt sincere in his effort to promote his home city as the 2016 site of the Olympics. However, as any good strategist, he probably weighed the risk of failure and realized it could also be beneficial in some way. The grand and overpaid network poobahs started balancing the whole of his presidency on one silly trip to Copenhagen. They must have been kidding. Or they are truly underestimating him and his advisers.

The first point to make, of course, is that there was only a 25%  chance that Chicago would be it. Tokyo and Madrid were also in the offing, along with Rio. Secondly, the USA already hosted the Olympics, in fact several times: Atlanta, 1996, and Los Angeles, which had the honor twice already, in 1984 and 1932.  If memory serves me right, no artificially manufactured anti-Olympic brouhaha emerged prior to the decision to choose these two cities. Thirdly, Olympic Games are very costly, even if they do give some cities an opportunity to clean up their façades and maybe build a new stadium at exorbitant costs. Munich, in 1972, got itself a state-of-the-art subway, a great concert and events venue, a wonderful swimming pool and some esthetically dubious housing. It – and Israel above all — also endured a tragic terrorist attack.  Other cities are not such happy campers financially. Check here for some stats. And finally, it was time for South America to draw the crowds, and let’s face it, Rio is a great place to party … though I wonder what the conservative pundits have to say about the crime rate there.

Hoist with their own petard

The point is, though, the right-wingers once again turned up the heat and started firing with every loud but irrelevant argument they could find, encouraged, no doubt, by the usual crowd of publicity-seeking baggers and birthers. My suspicion is that the Olympic gambit was in fact a fairly obvious rhetorical trap for this pathologically angry crowd of naysayers. In chess, a gambit is the sacrifice of a pawn (or a piece) in the opening to attain an attack or a stronger position. It does not necessarily mean winning.  Obama, in fact, could not lose. By going to Denmark, he was showing a high degree of commitment not only to Chicago, but also to the USA, since, barring the financial burdens, being an Olympic host is an honor, apparently. The argument that he has better things to do in times of crisis is ridiculous. If the average Joe or Jane in the US can travel and work wirelessly these days, so can Obama in the comfort of Airforce One. As for results, had the president managed to convince the IOC, he would have effectively silenced  – at last for the space of a lunch break – those who obsessively and compulsively rave against anything he does…. Now that Chicago was nixed, these über-patriots are clapping and cheering and jeering. What they’re doing, actually, is approving of a US defeat, an absolute rhetorical no-no …  They could not approve or commiserate, owing to their previous stand. They were in a corner and Obama simply let them impale themselves on their own weapons. Though I am not sure whether these people realize this at all. “To subdue the enemy without fighting is the acme of skill,” Sun Tzu dixit.

This might also explain Obama’s remarkable equanimity in the face of rather blatant and virulent attacks from the lunatic fringe-far right spectral range during the health care debate. It appears to be a tactic (I suppose there is really a will behind it) that he and his advisers often used during the campaign a year ago. For instance, every time Sarah Palin would start heating up the tin foil crowd with bizarre allegations that had nothing to do with the economy melting down, or when she allowed misfits to shout death threats against candidate Obama, support for the McCain-Palin ticket declined. She failed to see that most voters were not interested in conspiracy theory à la McCarthy. Obama would essentially wave it off as something fairly pedestrian. To see John McCain finally explain to some hysterical senior citizen that Obama is in fact an American citizen and an honorable man was almost poignant. Gradually, the opposition wound up on the fringe where it became highly identifiable. To this day, in those horrid forum comment fields, one can quickly identify those who are writing down the tinselly sounds in their heads fed by the far right, from Palin down to Savage. They keep repeating the same inHannities… Barack H. Obama, Acorn, socialism, etc… Tired old stuff that has about as much meaning as the muttering of some burnt-out preacher on Speaker’s Corner…

At the crossroads

After Chicago, the professional ranters will find themselves increasingly sidelined, I suspect, perhaps even where health care is concerned. Which will not deter them, just as the Palin fiasco did not deter them from just adopting the better part of valor and keeping a low profile for a while. Sure, the health insurance debate is far from over and given the millions spent by the insurance companies to produce scare-ads and convince senators,   Obama may well fail to get the entire package. But he will get something from it, and be that merely clarity about who is who. The American people, apparently, want reform, some 47 million are uninsured and that is shocking in a modern, industrialized country. But rather than engage in reasonable deliberation, the opposition has hitched its cart to fellows like Beck, who are cynically playing the lunatic fringe for all they can, because there is money to be made in them thar hills. It’s hardly astonishing that the Obama administration is now seeking support from the GOP, particularly the governors. Schwarzenegger is more or less on board. What this sounds like is a kind of methadone program for sections of the GOP that have become addicted to the simplistic, borderline rhetorical bilge being thrown daily at the US public by self-seeking radio hosts.  If the GOP wants to win presidentials again, it will have to change some of its political planks and above all unload all the loose cannons, professional peddlers of political hallucinations and sundry buffoons at the nearest port of call.


Verified by MonsterInsights