In Other Words The Art of the Pub­lisher by Roberto Calasso

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What is the func­tion of a good pub­lisher? In a time when politi­cians and tele­vi­sion per­son­al­i­ties get mul­ti­mil­lion-dol­lar ad­vances for mem­oirs, this ques­tion sorely needs to be asked. Roberto Calasso, who has worked at the pub­lish­ing house Adel­phi Edizioni in Mi­lan since its in­cep­tion in 1962, ex­am­ines the pub­lisher’s role in all se­ri­ous­ness in his book of es­says, The Art of the Pub­lisher.

Calasso is nat­u­rally in­ter­ested in mat­ters of form — book jacket and de­sign — but he is also imag­i­na­tive about the sub­stance of a pub­lisher’s oeu­vre. He sees a pub­lisher’s out­put as a land­scape with its moun­tains and plateaus and vales. What ex­cites him is the pos­si­bil­ity of con­nec­tion be­tween the seem­ingly dis­parate “sin­gle” books a pub­lish­ing house puts out. He likens such con­nec­tions to “the band­hus of which the Vedic seers spoke.” Bandhu, which means “friend” in San­skrit, also refers to the Hindi word band­han (ties); the Vedas sug­gest that the band­hus con­nect our in­ner and outer worlds. It is not ev­ery day that a Western pub­lisher quotes lu­cidly from the Vedas: “And the most mys­te­ri­ous bandhu was the one that linked the un­man­i­fest to the man­i­fest, the asat to the

sat.” Calasso is an author of sev­eral “in­ter­con­nected” works — he ex­plored Greek mythol­ogy in his 1988 book, The Mar­riage of Cad­mus and Har­mony, and Hindu mythol­ogy in his book Ka (1996) — which might ex­plain the sur­pris­ing depths from which he culls the ma­te­rial for th­ese es­says. “The con­nec­tions are ob­vi­ous and very fas­ci­nat­ing be­tween In­dian sto­ries and Greek sto­ries, but I didn’t want to pro­duce a com­par­a­tive study,” he told The Paris Re­view. “The Greek sto­ries speak for them­selves and the In­dian sto­ries speak for them­selves. But if you look at the sto­ries of He­len in Greece and Saranyu in In­dia, the affini­ties are bla­tant, and you can go far into them.”

At Adel­phi Edizioni (Calasso be­came chair­man in 1999), the 600 ti­tles of the Bi­b­lioteca Adel­phi share a vis­ual look and a com­mon frame­work — they be­long to­gether in ways that be­come clear to an in­tu­itive reader. “Each bead stays linked to all the oth­ers along the same thread,” Calasso writes. Such vi­sion is not ex­actly the norm in mod­ern-day pub­lish­ing, where eco­nomic re­al­i­ties can over­rule other con­sid­er­a­tions. Calasso sug­gests that the books pub­lished to­day are of­ten a re­sult of the deal an author’s agent has ne­go­ti­ated, or be­cause of an author’s re­la­tion­ship with an ed­i­tor, and less so be­cause of any guid­ing aes­thetic or philo­soph­i­cal prin­ci­pal on the part of the pub­lisher.

One of the vi­sion­ary pub­lish­ers dis­cussed in this book is Al­dus Manu­tius, who in 1499 pub­lished what is con­sid­eredby many bib­lio­philes to be the most beau­ti­ful book ever pub­lished. A de­but novel, The Strife of Love in a Dream was a fo­lio edi­tion il­lus­trated with wood­cuts, and writ­ten in “a mish­mash of Ital­ian, Latin, and Greek (while He­brew and Ara­bic ap­peared in the wood­cuts).” Manu­tius also in­vented the equiv­a­lent to the mod­ern paper­back, which he de­scribed as parva

forma, es­sen­tially “books that can be held in the hand,” and thus changed how peo­ple read.

Calasso ad­vo­cates for pub­lish­ing to be con­sid­ered an art, which of course it al­ways has been, but this fact tends to get buried in the litany of cor­po­rate merg­ers Amer­i­can pub­lish­ing has ex­pe­ri­enced since the 1990s. In the past, there were lu­mi­nous pe­ri­ods, for in­stance, at Charles Scrib­ner’s Sons, where the ed­i­tor Maxwell Perkins worked from 1910 un­til his death at 1947, and where he shaped the work of Ernest Hem­ing­way, Mar­jorie Kin­nan Rawl­ings, and Thomas Wolfe, among oth­ers. To­day, from time to time, a small press or a bou­tique pub­lisher makes their taste felt over the course of a few sea­sons. Europa Edi­tions has been lauded in re­cent years for pub­lish­ing var­ied works in trans­la­tion, in­clud­ing those of the in­ter­na­tion­ally ac­claimed author Elena Fer­rante.

The avail­abil­ity of qual­ity trans­la­tions can give us in­sight, through lit­er­a­ture, into many more cul­tures than we could oth­er­wise hope to know. As­ton­ish­ingly, Goethe had al­ready fore­seen the con­cept of Weltlit­er­atur or “uni­ver­sal lit­er­a­ture” in the 19th cen­tury. He wrote: “Na­tional lit­er­a­ture now means lit­tle, we are en­ter­ing the pe­riod of uni­ver­sal lit­er­a­ture and each must con­trib­ute to­ward has­ten­ing the ar­rival of this pe­riod.” More re­cently, au­thors such as A.S. By­att have crit­i­cized the ex­pung­ing of valu­able re­gional de­tails from nov­els so that they might be more trans­lat­able into other lan­guages. With­out the art of pub­lish­ing, how­ever, none of th­ese mir­a­cles of un­der­stand­ing or mis­un­der­stand­ing would oc­cur.

Calasso roundly sneers at the man­agers in pub­lish­ing houses who of­ten don’t know much about books or pub­lish­ing, and whose strate­gies to im­prove the bot­tom line usu­ally fail. He main­tains that only an ex­pe­ri­enced pub­lisher can make the dis­tinc­tion be­tween a “good” book and a “bad” book, and he fears that the role of this kind of in­tu­itive pub­lisher is be­ing phased out. Th­ese es­says are culled mainly from talks the author gave, so they delve about as deep as talks do — which is to say that it would have been nice if he had de­vel­oped them more be­fore col­lect­ing them in book form.

This col­lec­tion is valu­able as a vet­eran’s take on an art form that has been prac­ticed since Guten­berg in­vented the print­ing press — and a form which some al­ready con­sider passé. Still, phys­i­cal books have sur­vived count­less dooms­day sce­nar­ios, and last year, The

New York Times re­ported that the sales of e-books have fi­nally lev­eled off. For the mo­ment at least, bib­lio­philes can breathe eas­ier. The Art of the Pub­lisher is re­fresh­ing and rel­e­vant be­cause it gets us to con­sider not sim­ply how much longer phys­i­cal books will last, but how much bet­ter they could be. — Priyanka Kumar

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