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On a bright September morning I strolled through Göteborg’s Trädgårdsföreningen Park on the way to the Svenska Mässan exhibition hall for my third and final day at Bok & Bibliotek, the Göteborg Book Fair. In a mellow mood induced by my surroundings and my good fortune in attending the fair through the support of the Nedbook Northwest Europe Award, I began to muse that the fair was somewhat like this sprawling and varied horticultural society park. The Rosarium with its 5,000 bushes of some 2,000 varieties was like the broad sweep of Swedish publishing on display in the exhibits. The huge nineteenth-century Palm House presented specimens from all over the world for a predominantly Swedish audience, just like the fair. And the big names and big books that drew excited fairgoers were like the flowers in the fragrance garden. My own role in this garden of books, it seemed to me, was that of the bibliothecal bee happily buzzing from blossom to blossom gathering nectar to take back to the hive. Here the analogy seemed to break down, for I had picked up so many catalogs, prospectuses, and brochures that I had to prevail on a Norwegian antiquarian bookseller friend to ship them home for me.
A few minutes later I passed kiosks and fences plastered with posters for Cirkus Maximum, Sweden’s largest circus, and noticed the large tent being raised for the performance that evening. This, I realized, was an equally apt metaphor for the fair as spectacle. Major Scandinavian presses and bookstore chains vied for the public’s attention (and kronor) in their respective rings. Authors jumped through hoops for publisher reps. The daring flying trapeze artists might well be Hans Blix, Jan Morris, Eric Schlosser, or Gore Vidal in their public readings and lectures. And instead of cotton candy and peanuts, I needed only to follow my nose to the “cooking theatre” in the mezzanine where chefs like Marcus Samuelsson of New York’s Aquavit diced, poached, sautéed, and chatted—all in the interest of selling their latest cookbooks in the adjacent sales area.
This was the twentieth annual Göteborg fair, vastly different in scale from the first in 1985 to which 88 exhibits and 28 seminar programs attracted some 5,000 attendees including 138 members of the press. The fair has become a Swedish cultural landmark (covered this year by 1,173 media representatives) and grown to the point that this year’s 108,452 visitors could wander through 739 exhibits and choose from among 450 seminars and countless vendor-sponsored readings and panel presentations. On Thursday and most of Friday entry was limited to trade visitors who comprised 35% of the fair’s overall attendees. Of these the overwhelming majority were educators (40%) or librarians (24%), with much smaller representation from publishing (5%) and bookselling (4%). This preponderance of public attendees lends Göteborg’s fair a very different character from that of Frankfurt’s much larger exposition where trade visitors (especially publishers and booksellers) comprise over 60% of the total. This is unmistakably a readers’ event.
Over 90% of fairgoers purchase books or other merchandise and Sweden’s leading bookstore chains and publishers offered them a wide variety of titles in oversized exhibit areas vying for attention. Particularly eye-catching was the Akademiebokhandeln booth: beneath the banner “What do you have on your nightstand?” large round beds shaded by dream-like inverted palm trees beckoned weary attendees to lounge, but behind them gauzy curtains billowed by fans enticed us to shelves filled with bedtime reading available for purchase. The Internet-based bookseller Adlibris grabbed attention and started a price war by offering discount prices on every title. In the first three days of the fair it racked up a record 1.6 million kronor in sales and set surprised competitors scrambling to lower their prices.
The United Kingdom was the guest nation at this year’s fair and its books, authors and publishers were well-represented on the exhibit floor and in the seminar rooms. I learned that Swedish readers buy English-language fiction so avidly that publishers of translations must rush their editions to print or face a market already eroded by the originals. Appearances by authors like Margaret Drabble, David Mitchell, and David Lodge were mobbed. At one point I went to the Bonniers Förlag booth hoping to see and hear Kerstin Ekman, only to find the area jammed to gridlock by fans of mystery writer Minette Walters who had gotten the word that their idol had been moved into Ekman’s time slot.
My own primary interest lay in visiting the exhibits of Scandinavian imprints, especially the stands of the serious small publishers, nonprofit organizations, societies, and government agencies whose output is more difficult to track in North America. I browsed and chatted my way through a wonderful range of exhibits: the Swedish Literary Society in Finland, the National Secretariat for Gender Studies, the National Forestry Association (its booth featured a real pine tree!), the Nordic Council of Ministers, the Swedish Photographers’ Association (with a stunning exhibit co-sponsored by the Lutheran Church), the Language and Folklore Institute (which publishes works on dialects, personal and place names, and folklore), and Föreningen Norden (whose Norden i Skolan program promotes teacher and student exchanges across Scandinavia) and so on.
Over twenty literary societies devoted to promoting the works of single authors had their own stands and many sponsored seminars and readings. I visited booths dedicated to the legacies of Carl von Linné, Carl Michael Bellman, August Strindberg, Selma Lagerlöf, Vilhelm Moberg, and Greta Garbo, among others. At the Garbosällskapet booth a woman told me darkly, “She wouldn’t have approved of us, you know!” The Stig Dagerman (1923-1954) stand featured his desk and typewriter, a floor covered with rag rugs, and the society’s president strumming a guitar and singing Dagerman lyrics to music of his own composition. Not surprisingly, the Swedish Academy was more staid in honoring its eighteen current members whose votes determine the Nobel prize for literature—there was a niche for each featuring a portrait, a shelf of their books, and free bibliographies.
I especially enjoyed exhibits and conversations at the booths sponsored by libraries, archives and museums and their professional organizations. Notable among these were the National Library (with its juried exhibit, Svensk Bokkonst, featuring outstanding book designs of the year), the National Archives, the joint exhibit by regional museums, the librarians’ union (featuring T-shirts with the declaration “Culture is Healthy” and a picture of a bottle of “Kultur Piller” with the assurance that an overdose is impossible!). The colleagues at the Swedish Library Association were also selling shirts in stylish black with one’s choice of library terminology as silver captions. I passed over Folio, Newly Acquired, Available for Home Loan, In Storage, Reference Copy, and Deaccessioned, settling for On Reserve.
I succeeded, but just barely, in finishing my tour of the exhibit hall by 2:00 p.m. on Friday when the fair was opened to the general public. The crush of the crowd pressing to enter was so great that I exited with some difficulty. I devoted Saturday, my final day at the fair, to attending seminars and readings, a luxurious pleasure I hadn’t permitted myself on the first two days. This had meant forgoing Hans Blix, Kerstin Ekman, and a panel discussing the future role of the National Library. Fortunately there were still rich possibilities to choose among on Saturday. My highlights included Swedish children’s author Birgitta Fransson in conversation with British author Francis Spufford about the favorite books of his childhood, revisited in his book The Child that Books Built (2002), and a panel of three young Austrians-by-choice—Dimtré Dinev, Vladimir Vertlib, and Aris Fioretos—reading from their novels and comparing their experiences in writing in German, which is not their native tongue.
Back in Chicago, as winter
closes in I am making honey from the nectar I gathered in the garden of Bok
& Bibliotek. I believe that my interactions there contributed to useful
cross-pollination. And I remain very grateful to Nedbook International for their
Northwest Europe Award that made it possible for me to fly so far from the hive.
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