To Be Absolutely Frank

Great Books Without Borders

In the land of Virgil and Dante, spreading fine literature is a subversive proposition.

By 1.23.03

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Aside from all the naked breasts, the most striking thing to an American about an Italian newsstand is the quantity of non-reading material on sale. Dozens of CDs, CD-ROMs, video cassettes and DVDs are available as bonuses, either free or at a discount, to purchasers of newspapers and magazines. Italians are not big readers -- they spend half as much per capita on books as we do, and are less likely than Jamaicans or Bolivians to buy a daily newspaper -- so publishers use other forms of entertainment as bait.

Recently, though, the country's biggest-selling papers have been offering extra helpings of the written word as premiums: hardcover editions of classic novels for about $5 a piece. Other papers and magazines have followed suit, and works as demanding as Herzog and Anna Karenina have been selling like calendars of naked starlets. Italians last year bought an estimated 40 million books this way -- almost two and half times the number sold in bookshops.

This being Europe, success so big was bound to stir up vocal resentment. "To be able to offer books at just under five euro you have to know you can sell hundreds of thousands of copies," the head of one publishing house told the Italian news service ANSA. "This is something that 99.9 percent of publishing houses cannot count on."

Book publishers and sellers are now threatening to file a complaint with the country's Antitrust authority. The head of the book retailers' lobby says that mom-and-pop librerie can't survive against the marketing might of national periodicals. He also warns that readers might get so accustomed to picking up literature at the newsstand that they'll quit going to bookstores.

This reminds me of the old joke about the man who received a book for Christmas and complained that he already owned one. Never having run a business, I hesitate to tell others how to do theirs, but hasn't it occurred to booksellers that reading is an acquired and cultivated taste, both in general and with regard to categories and authors? Isn't it conceivable that bookstores could profitably tag along with the newspapers' marketing campaigns?

Last year, for instance, La Repubblica offered a cut-rate edition of The Old Man and the Sea. If I ran a bookshop, I might have taken that occasion to put some of Hemingway's other works in my window. I admit that this is a daring proposition in a country (and a continent) where store hours are limited by law to spare merchants excessive competition (and the consumer be damned). But as far as I know, timely window displays would not bring down the wrath of the Antitrust authority.

It's not just fear of competition that informs the booksellers' and publishers' protest. Snobbery plays a role. "You'd have to be pretty optimistic to think that selling books with newspapers will create a new generation of readers," says the owner of a medium-sized press. "That's based on the assumption that anything marketed in the right way will sell. Books are different. You have to read them, sometimes toil with them and feel real passion."

This objection would be more persuasive if newspapers were using gimmicks -- such as sexy cover photographs or companion tapes of movie adaptations -- to sell books. In this case, the books are the gimmick. Remarkably, Stendahl and Mann are helping sell sports scores and weather reports.

Passionate readers seem to be more numerous in Italy than their traditional suppliers suspected; but to win their custom, publishers and booksellers will have to toil harder than they are used to doing. Discouraging as it is to hear the latter grumble, news like this gives me hope for the growth of Europe's increasingly integrated economy, and for the vibrancy of its rich and diverse cultures.

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About the Author

Francis X. Rocca ia an American writer in Rome, Italy.