In Other Words The Art of the Publisher by Roberto Calasso
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