World Book Capital: Whose party is this anyway?

Athens has been World Book Capital for just over three months. After the grand opening at the Acropolis Museum on April 23 you might think, or hope, that book events are now going on at every corner of the street. Even though much is happening, only a small part of the city is actually involved. According to Evi Charitoudi, head librarian of the Nordic Library at Athens, the locals are not yet part of the celebrations.

From the perspective of a librarian, or arguably any other bookish person, one would expect that there are flyers and posters on buses and in metro stations, that there is coverage of Book Capital events on radio, tv and social media. That is not quite the case. I take the metro to the library on a daily basis and it was only last week I noticed a screen advertisement with a reference to the Book Capital. There has been some activity on the Facebook and Instagram accounts recently. but I only got the message because I already follow these accounts. Many Athenians know that their city is the World Book Capital but are not yet part of the celebrations.

Arguably my expectations are high, since I am working in the world of books myself. Are they too high? Well, the organizing committee did promise us that the program would bring together all the city’s major cultural institutions and other stakeholders, along with selected civic groups and creative initiatives. Most of these groups play there part, but the share of local civic groups is limited.

Regarding the events, I was afraid that it would be all about conferences, exhibitions and lectures. Classical top-down highbrow cultural manifestations. In that part I have been pleasantly surprised. The events were not centrally planned, each institution (including the Municipality of Athens) arranged its own program, which was reviewed for approval by the Book Capital Committee. Some institutions have been rather creative. Of course there are many exhibitions, lectures and book presentation, but there are also interactive workshops, performances, book walks, screenings, seminars, musical events and an urban picnic.

Many of the events focus on children and teenagers. That comes as no surprise, as the Municipality recently launched three library branches dedicated to infants, children and teenagers. It is appealing that people aged 5-15 have so much to choose from, from creative writing seminars to music education programs and from museum workshops to treasure hunts.

There is, however, a very diverse program for all ages: there are events where the Greek audience is introduced to foreign literature, other events are targeting immigrants and people whose first language is not Greek. Also very interesting are the literary walks where writers, who have written novels that take place in Athens, guide their readers to the spots that play a central role in their books. In the case of diseased authors, the tours are done by people who have studied their work. Other events that stand out is an open discussion about memes and their relationship to literature, a ballet performance based on a book that talks about the porn industry and a series of events on queer literature.

All together this seems like a broad program that has the potential to reach people from all walks of life. However, it feels like the Book Capital committee tries too hard to present a rich program. For some reason, they included festivals that have a long standing tradition in the city. What’s the reason to put the 18th Athens Jazz Festival under the auspices of the Book Capital. It has been very successful in the previous 17 years as an independent event – is it getting any better when you make a vague connection with books? The summer reading campaign for children has been organized for many years by the National Library and this year it is also part of the Book Capital. And what to think of a concert by The Scorpions that has also been listed as an official event on the Book Capital program. Good luck finding a bookish connection there!

All in all, the Book Capital has put together an interesting program, but it seems to appeal mostly to those people that are already involved in the world of books. Is the program lacking diversity or is the communication not reaching the local population? So far, the World Book Capital is a stakeholders party, and even though I wonder if a few extra advertisements in the subway will change that for the better, I will keep my eyes open next time I travel to work.

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