A Letter to a Stranger

Roberto Calasso

In The Art of the Publisher, the illustrious Roberto Calasso reflects on more than half a century of distinguished literary publishing at Adelphi Edizioni in Milan. With his signature erudition and grasp of literary history, he recalls the beginnings of the house in the 1960s and touches on everything from the strategies for publishing a wide range of authors of high literary quality to the state of the industry as a whole. In this excerpt, Calasso muses on the elusive literary art known as jacket copy.

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The cover flap is a humble and arduous literary form for which there is as yet no theorist or historian. For a publisher, it is often the only opportunity to spell out what spurred him to choose a particular book. For the reader, it is a text to be read with caution, for fear of it being a piece of surreptitious hype. And yet the cover flap is part of the book, of its physiognomy, like the color and picture on the front cover, like the typeface in which it is printed. And a literary civilization can be recognized by the way its books are presented.

The history of the book had traveled a long and tortuous path before the appearance of the cover flap. Its noble forebear is the dedicatory epistle, another literary genre that flourished from the sixteenth century, where the author (or printer) addressed the prince who had given his patronage to the work—a genre no less awkward than the cover flap, since here the purpose was flattery rather than commercial enticement. Despite this, so often and in so many books, the author (or the printer) allowed the truth—and even drops of his poison—to emerge between the lines of the opening dedication. The fact remains, however, that as soon as the book comes into existence, the cover flap seems inevitably to be regarded as a form that kindles mistrust.

In modern times there is no longer a prince to address, but a public. Will this perhaps have a clearer and more recognizable face? Anyone who thinks so is mistaken. For some, it could even be the mistake on which their very profession is founded. But the story of publishing, when looked at closely, is a story of endless surprises, a story where uncertainty reigns. The whim of the prince is replaced by another, more pervasive and no less powerful whim. And the possibilities for misunderstanding are multiplied. Let’s start with the word public: those who talk about a public generally think of a large and amorphous entity. But reading is solitary, like thought—and it presupposes the obscure and lone choice of a single person. The whim implicit in the choice of the patron who offers support to a writer (or printer) is, after all, better founded and therefore less of a whim than that of an unknown reader confronting a work or an author about which he knows nothing.

We watch a reader in a bookshop: he picks up a book, leafs through it—and for a short instant he is entirely cut off from the world. He is listening to someone speaking, whom others cannot hear. He gathers random fragments of phrases. He shuts the book, looks at the cover. Then he often takes a brief glance at the cover flap, hoping for some assistance. At that moment, without realizing it, he is opening an envelope: those few lines, external to the text of the book, are like a letter written to a stranger.

• • •

For many years, once Adelphi had begun publishing, we found ourselves asking the question: “What is the policy of the publishing house?” It was a question that was colored by a certain moment in time when the word policy was synonymous with politics, which found its way into everything, even the choice of coffee at a bar. Yet the question, despite its awkwardness, was right. Over the past century the figure of the publisher has faded further and further into the background. He has become an invisible minister who dispenses words and images in accordance with criteria that are not immediately apparent, and which stir universal curiosity. Does he publish to make money, like so many other producers of goods? Deep down, few believe this, due, if nothing else, to the fragility of the profession and the market. There is an immediate doubt, in this case, whether money is sufficient to justify everything. Something extra is always attributed to the publisher. If there ever was a publisher who published only to make money (and I have never met one), no one would take any notice of him. And he would probably go out of business fast, confirming the opinions of the skeptics.

In the early years, one was struck by a certain lack of connection between Adelphi books. Appearing one after the other in the same Biblioteca series were a fantasy novel, a Japanese treatise on the art of theater, a popular book on animal behavior, a Tibetan religious text, and an account of imprisonment during the Second World War. What bound all of these together? Paradoxically, after a number of years, any concern about a lack of connection was reversed into quite the opposite: the recognition of a clear connection. In several bookshops, where the shelves are divided by subject matter, I have found—alongside labels for Cookery, Economics, History, etc.—another label in the same graphics, that simply said “Adelphi.” This peculiar reversal that various booksellers and many readers had come to notice was not unwarranted. A publishing house can be set up for a whole variety of reasons, and according to a whole variety of criteria. What seems most normal for a large publishing house today could be described as follows: to publish books that each relate to one section of this vast entity that is the public. There will therefore be coarse books for coarse people and exquisite books for exquisite people, in proportion to the size attributed to each of those sections.

But an editorial program can also be built up according to quite the opposite criterion. What is a publishing house other than a long, serpentine progression of pages? Each segment of that serpent is one book. But what happens if we look upon that series of segments as a single book? A book that contains within it many genres, many styles, many periods, but which proceeds continually and naturally, always in the expectation of one new chapter, which each time is another author. A perverse and polymorphous book that aims toward poikilía, “variegation,” without shrinking from contrast and contradiction, but where even rival authors develop a subtle complicity that perhaps they had failed to see in their lifetime. After all, this strange process by which a series of books can be read as a single book has already happened in the mind of somebody, or at least in the mind of that anomalous entity behind each individual book: the publisher.

This view produces various consequences. If a book is primarily a form, then a book comprising a sequence of hundreds (or thousands) of books will also be, first and foremost, a form. In a publishing house of the kind I am describing, a wrong book is like a wrong chapter in a novel, a weak point in an essay, a jarring splash of color in a painting. To criticize the publishing house would thus be rather like criticizing an author. Such a publishing house could be compared with an author whose writing consists only of centos. But weren’t the first Chinese classics all centos?

I don’t wish, though, to be misunderstood: I don’t expect any publisher to become like a Chinese classic. It would be dangerous for his mental stability, which is already threatened by so many pitfalls and temptations. Not least of these—and destined for a promising future—is the temptation that is the perfect mirror opposite of what we might call the temptation of the classical Chinese text. By this I mean the possibility of becoming the character Adolf Loos called the “poor little rich man,” who wanted to live in an apartment designed by his architect down to the tiniest detail, and in the end felt completely alien and shamed in his own home. The architect complained that he had dared to wear a pair of slippers (also designed by the architect) in the living room and not in the bedroom.

No, my proposal is that there should always be one minimum but essential requirement incumbent on publishers. And what is this indispensable minimum? That the publisher enjoys reading the books he publishes. But isn’t it perhaps true that all books that have given us some pleasure become a composite creature in our minds, whose constituent parts are linked by an irresistible affinity? This creature, formed by chance and by persistent study, could become the model for a publishing house. And, for example, for one whose very name—Adelphi—reveals a propensity for affinity.

• • •

All of this has left its mark on the cover flaps I have written (1,089 up to now). From the very beginning, they obeyed one single rule: that we ourselves could take them at face value; and one single desire: that our readers, contrary to custom, could do the same. In that cramped rhetorical space, less fascinating than that of a sonnet but equally exacting, there was room for just a few effectual words, like when you introduce one friend to another and you must overcome the slight embarrassment that always exists in every introduction, above all between friends, as much as respecting the rules of good manners that prevent you from emphasizing the defects of the friend being introduced. But there was, in all this, also an element of constraint: it is well known that the art of sound praise is no less difficult than that of scathing criticism. And it is also well known that the number of adjectives appropriate for praising writers is far less than the number of adjectives available for praising Allah. Repetition and limitation are part of our nature. After all, we will never manage to greatly vary the movements we carry out when getting out of a bed.

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Roberto Calasso is the publisher of Adelphi Edizioni in Milan and is the author of a work in progress, all of whose parts deal with highly diverse materials yet are closely interconnected, and which up to now comprises The Ruin of Kasch, The Marriage of Cadmus and Harmony, Ka, K., Tiepolo Pink, La Folie Baudelaire, and Ardor.

Richard Dixon lives and works in Italy. His translations include The Prague Cemetery and Inventing the Enemy by Umberto Eco, and he is one of the translators of FSG’s edition of Giacomo Leopardi’s Zibaldone.


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