Frankfurt Book Fair

A book fair is where you go to see a vast array of books in display, and buy books you like. This simplistic picture is what I have in mind when I board the bus to the Frankfurt Book Fair. Little do I know that what awaits me is something very different.

Inside the bus, I open the bag given to all the passengers of this special bus trip. It contains a welcome brochure, some handouts with maps and guidelines, a bookmark and a pocket-sized novella. Just the things a booklover would treasure.


We reach the Messe a little before 10 am, and I decide to go first into hall 4.0, which is about “Fiction, Non-Fiction, Film & TV”.

I walk through the rows of bookstalls containing books in German and come to a section called “Marco Polo – a photographer’s journey”. It is a photo exhibition about a photographer (Michael Yamashita) who took Marco Polo’s route to prove he really went to the places he wrote about, and saw the things he described. I enter the gallery.

The photographs, enlarged to a dimension that make it look like a window into another world, are stunning. The initial photos are taken in Iraq.

Old Basra – traditional architecture crumbling from neglect” reads the caption of a photo showing a facade of a building with carved windows that once must have been beautiful. Does all this still exist, or it has crumbled in the war?

The sequence of photographs takes me through Iran, Afghanistan, Mongolia, China, Myanmar, Vietnam, Indonesia, Sri Lanka, India and back to Venice through Iran and Turkey. Lands and peoples are brought to life through breathtaking images. I decide to buy the book.

Outside the exhibition I continue walking, looking at stalls that display their wares. The variety is staggering. What if most of the books were in English? Would I have been able to cover even one hall in a whole day?

One stall displays ‘Moleskine‘ notebooks. I have not heard of them, so I enter the stall to take a look. A nice writer’s notebook is worth spending a few Euros on, so I ask for the price. Sorry, not for sale, comes the polite reply. I nod, and leave.

At a corner I see a section containing books and videos by Arte. Some of the documentaries I’ve seen on Arte are collector’s items, and it is nice to note that they package and sell these documentaries.

In another section I find a small book containing a collage of photos, text, sketches and other odds and ends by a little girl who documents her travel from Germany to India. It is titled Reisenotizen, and although the text is in German, it is of a level I can understand with a bit of effort. As I leaf through the pages, I find an image of a bill, pink in color, of Chandigarh chat house on which the scribbled letters say ‘1 tea – Rs 2.50“. Another page has a photograph of a Sardarji sitting next to a German lady – probably the girl’s mother – and the text on that page says something like “Call me grandpa. I like helping tourists and I can show you all around Chandigarh. And it would be nice if you wrote a bit about me.”

Charming little book, but not for sale. I note down the ISBN: 3-86176-018-5.

I walk a little further, and see a small group of people gathered around a machine. A man is giving a demonstration of how it works. The display reads: “Knee Lever Press by R.W.Cope of London. In the 19th century, such presses completely replaced the presses made of wood. This press was built in 1840 and is still in working condition“. The man places a plain chart on an iron base, slides it inside the press and pulls a lever with both hands. He then slides the base back, picks up the paper and displays the printed material to everyone. Applause, all around.


I pick up one of the many printed charts lying on the floor and pay the mentioned price of 1 Euro. In 1840 it would probably have cost a little less.

It is almost time for lunch. I leave hall 4.1 and head towards the meeting point.

After lunch, I enter hall 6.1, which hosts International Publishers. The intention is to find some books in English, so I venture into the French section. Wrong choice, I quickly learn. While the German stalls had one or two books in English, the French show no such consideration. Books, books, everywhere, not a word to read.

I change my strategy – I begin to watch people instead. Each stall has a couple of tables and chairs, and the most of the French are busy talking about business. Some others are involved in serious debates. The French, I’ve heard, take intellectual matters very seriously. Now I see this trait as I walk across stalls with French men and women, involved in passionate verbal exchanges or poring deeply into a book. At one such stall a young lady reading a book suddenly looks down, and seeing that her neckline has dropped lower than her modesty would permit, she pulls up her blouse. Satisfied with this adjustment, she resumes reading.

After the French, I see stalls from the West Indies and suddenly some English titles come into view. One stall contains books on Indo-Trinidad literature, culture and history. I scan for books by V.S.Naipaul, but I then realize that these books are from West Indian publishers so they clearly will not have Naipaul’s books, which were published by someone either in Europe or the US. There is, however, a book about writers with this background – of Indian descent, who migrated to the West Indies – and that has a mention of Naipaul and a few others I have not heard of.

Stalls from African countries come next. The contrast in the quality and size of stalls, and quality of books – in terms of packaging and presentation – between the French section and these African sections is stark. Of course, one knows the difference between the economic status of developed versus third-world countries, but encountering it like this, juxtaposed with each other, serves as a grim reminder of the huge divide between the rich and poor countries.

Some time later, I reach a section that contains an exhibition of books on the human rights movement. Here again there are English titles. A large book with illustrations catches my attention – it is called If the world were a village. I pick it up and sit down on a chair nearby.

The book tries to show different aspects of life from the perspective of the whole world being a small village consisting of 100 people. Each page is devoted to one aspect – for example, distribution based on continents (X people would be from Asia, Y people would be from Europe and so on). I note down one such distribution: in this village of 100 people, there are 42 radios, 24 TVs, 14 telephones and 7 computers. The numbers trigger a chain of thoughts. Isn’t it amusing that a lot of us think the Internet has spread all over the globe? If an entrepreneur would see these numbers, he would probably see a lot of potential for growth: new markets, more customers. And why is the number of telephones so less, in comparison to TVs? Do people prefer entertainment to communication?

One of the pages in the book compares the distribution of wealth, and contains the following text:

The richest 20 people each have more than $9000 a year. The poorest 20 each have less than $1 a day. The other 60 people have something in between.

If one reads carefully, one can notice the clever – and unnecessary – trick used by the author: for the richest, he uses year as the time attribute, but for the poorest he uses day. This makes the divide seem larger than it really is.

Next, I go one floor below into section 6.0, which also hosts International Publishers. To my extreme right are stalls from Japan, and I begin there. The Japanese stalls offer only books in their language, so I fall back to my alternative occupation. The people talking business in these stalls look very serious. The chairs are spaced a little apart from each other, the men sit straight in a stiff position, and only their business suits come in my way of thinking of them as a group of monks, meditating together. The women are extremely attractive; I pretend to be interested in some books on Haiku in one of the stalls.

Japan is followed by China, and here the stalls get bigger and the voices I hear get squeakier. Although I do not understand a word of either language, there is a qualitative difference that I can somehow sense and recognize.

After China there is Korea, Taiwan, Malaysia, Vietnam, Myanmar, Nepal and then India. Walking through the rows, watching and hearing people from different countries, is like taking a whirlwind cultural tour. I can think of few other places where one can find so much cultural variety in such proximity. Something like this would be an ideal location for an educational tour about people from different countries.

I slow down my pace at the stalls from Indian publishers; I can finally hear some tongues I understand, and read titles I recognize. At one stall a middle-aged Indian lady smiles. I smile back.

“Are you from India” she asks.

“That’s right.” I reply.

“Are you a student?”

“No, I work here.”

“Why don’t you sit down?” she offers.

“That’s okay. I’m just taking a look around.” I reply.

“You must have heard about the magazine The Book Review. It is the earliest magazine of its kind in India and we are now offering subscriptions to people outside India.” She hands over some brochures and a form.

Someone comes to the stall to talk to her on a business related matter, so I start to leave. She asks me to come back after “taking a look around” so that she could give me a copy of the magazine. I thank her and move on.

The books in these Indian stalls remind me of the African stalls, and lead to the inevitable comparison with stalls of more prosperous countries. I also notice that there are very few books in regional languages, or in Hindi. Only one stall is full of books in Bengali. When people try to present books in Japanese, why not Hindi or Malayalam? Probably none of the publishers in these languages saw much opportunity for business here.

At another stall an elderly Sardarji greets me with a “Hello”. I reciprocate his greetings.

“Student?” he asks.

“No, I work here.”

“What work do you do?” he asks.

“I work as a software engineer.” I reply.

“Well, we do not have any software books, but there are plenty of other books that will remind you of India.” he says, with a chuckle.

I laugh, and turn towards some books on display. Some are on travel, some others are on spirituality and self-help. He picks up a book titled How to be more successful and shows it to me saying, “This is a very good book.”

I nod my head, and continue to look around. Then I thank him and leave.

A little ahead at the Indonesian stall, while flipping through a book about Borobodur, I hear a conversation between an Indian gentleman and an Indonesian lady. The Indian is about to publish a travel book on Indonesia, and he wants to know if he can get help with the distribution of the book in that country. The lady asks him to contact another Indonesian publisher in this matter.

In another stall from Italy, I hear two ladies discussing another distribution deal.

“I like the shape of the books.” one lady says, in a British accent. “I think I’ll take these.”

Soon I reach the section with stalls from Baltic countries. In one of the stalls I notice a book with a single word on the cover: Kabir. It can’t be about the Indian poet, I tell myself, picking it up. I am wrong. It is a book of poems by Kabir – the background of first page has some lines in Devanagiri, a script used for Hindi – translated into a script I do not recognize. Through the corner of my eye I sense the lady at the stall looking at me. I look up and meet her eyes; I cannot decipher her expression. I keep the book back and walk away. After a few steps, I turn back and walk up to the lady.

“Excuse me. Which language are these books written in?” I ask.

“Estonian.” She replies. “You were looking at the book by Kabir.” The way she pronounces ‘Kabir’ conveys a sense of respect and admiration.

“That’s right. I’ve read Kabir, and I was surprised to see his work in such a translation.” I say.

“The book is a translation based on the English translation.” She says, reaching for the book in the shelf. She shows me the names of the translators.

“I’ve read Kabir’s poetry a long time back, when I was in school.” I tell her. “Its really interesting to see that his works are translated into different languages.”

I thank her and move ahead towards the stalls from Nordic countries. I expect these to have more books in English, simply because most people in these countries speak English (a trait not shared by other countries in Europe). But I find that the books are again in their regional languages. After walking across two rows, I finally come to a stall where I spot a shelf full of works in English. I pull up a chair near the shelf.

Here, at last, I can do something I am looking forward to since morning: sit with some good English books, read a bit of each and see if they interest me. I spend half an hour at this stall, at the end of which my notebook contains the following list:

* The Gulag Archipelago (Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn)
* The Atom Station (Halldors Laxness)
* LIFE-A User’s manual (Georges Perec)
* The Journals of a White Sea wolf (Marius Wilk)

My watch reads 4:15; it is time to leave. I pick up my bag and start walking towards the exit, taking with me ideas, ISBNs and an eclectic mix of images of a fascinating day at the Frankfurt Book Fair 2003.


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