Yerevan, Armenia: World Book Capital

When Johanna Skibsrud’s The Sentimentalists won the Scotiabank Giller Prize in 2010, reviews in the Globe and Mail and the National Post commented at length about the beautiful book produced by Nova Scotia’s Gaspereau Press, where books are printed by hand, carefully bound, and often include letter-pressed dust jackets and patterned end papers. These volumes are works of art in and of themselves, and although Douglas & McIntyre printed a trade paperback edition of the novel to make it more available to the public, many readers I know held out for the Gaspereau editions, which slowly made their way to bookstores across the country. I am lucky enough to have a Gaspereau edition, and it is indeed a work of exquisite craftsmanship.  As students and readers, we quickly come to revere literature, but there is something equally as incredible about the physical object of the book – the pages, the binding, the cover, even the letters on the page – that we rarely get the chance to appreciate.

illustration by Joe Ollmann

This year, the World Book Capital is Yerevan, Armenia. My father, who works in Armenia, told me about the designation, knowing that as an avid reader and sometimes book reviewer, I would be immediately interested. In researching the World Book Capital – a program run by UNESCO that moves to a new city each year – I discovered that 2012 is also the five hundredth anniversary of Armenian printing. Armenia isn’t exactly a straightforward place to get to, but it seemed foolish not to find a way to visit a festival that celebrated not only literature, but books as printed and bound objects.

My parents and I arrived in Yerevan after driving in a taxi for nearly six hours on the road from Tbilisi, the capital of neighbouring Georgia. I was sick – not car-sick, as it turned out, but sick-sick – and although I had all kinds of visions of running out to explore this book city on the first day, I instead spent the afternoon and evening lying on a lumpy sofa, trying not to move in the hope that stillness would calm the roiling inside me. If my trip to visit the festival could in any way be considered a sort of secular pilgrimage, at least I had the suffering part down.

The next day, after a good night’s sleep and some over-the-counter antibiotics, I set out with my mother to find Republic Square, the centre of the city, where we hoped to find the post office and perhaps some information about what bookish events were taking place, since the streets were strangely devoid of any indication something special was happening. After walking for several blocks, we were pretty sure we were going in the wrong direction, but decided to press on for one more block. In Yerevan, pedestrians cross major intersections using underpasses rather than crosswalks, and the last one we dipped into before turning around to try our luck in the other direction was a mother lode: a sprawling, subterranean book market.

I had heard about how booksellers in Yerevan sold their wares in a particular pedestrian underpass, but I had pictured a more North American-style underpass, which in my imagination resembled a road running beneath a narrow, old-fashioned bridge. This, on the other hand, was a collection of wide passages that crisscrossed beneath the intersection above, with books literally stacked floor to ceiling, many covered in dust. On both the tables and shelves sat all kinds of old books, including several complete sets of encyclopedias with gold lettering still perfectly formed on their green leather bindings, but there were newer books too, their covers shiny and bright amid tables covered in dingy paperback editions of Russian thrillers and science fiction, books I wouldn’t have looked at twice except that the Cyrillic titles gave them an exotic appearance. The majority of the books had Cyrillic letters on their covers, leftover from the time when Russian was the dominant language of education, but there were also many Armenian titles, some of which must have been written by Armenians. Still, the one that caught my eye again and again was the Armenian translation of Antoine de St-Exupéry’s Le Petit Prince. Every bookseller seemed to have at least one copy, its cover a clean white beacon in an ocean of worn, musty volumes.

When we did eventually make it to Republic Square, a truly enormous square ringed by a collection of pink sandstone Soviet-era government buildings, I finally found an indication that the city was doing something to celebrate its international book status: hanging between the pillars at the History Museum of Armenia were huge banners proclaiming Yerevan as World Book Capital.

We paid 4,500 drams (about $10) each, and walked up to the third floor. The exhibit, dedicated to the five hundredth anniversary of Armenian printing, carried us through three rooms at the back, and luckily the interpretation cards were printed in both Armenian and English. Armenians have been printing with presses since shortly after Guttenberg printed the Bible, but the history of their printing extends far beyond that, back to the time of cuneiform characters hammered into rock, several examples of which sat in museum cases, their lettering hardly faded. From there, the exhibit chronicled the advances in Armenian writing, charting the changes and the challenges that led to the creation of the Armenian alphabet by the monk Mesrop Mashtots in 405 CE Manuscripts and translations written in Armenian were produced almost immediately; copies of various Bible translations, featuring letters so small they seemed impossible to decode, were laid open behind glass. So important was Mashtots’s 32-letter creation that, after his death, he was granted sainthood in the Armenian church.

Since I speak absolutely no Armenian, when wandering through this exhibit I was at no point distracted by trying to read the books laid open to illustrate the various scripts, painting and printing techniques on display. While I would normally see this as a hindrance, in this case it was for the best. The interpretive panels were presented in both Armenian and English, and I like to think that had the content of the books on display been relevant, they would have been translated as well.

Nonetheless, this early written Armenian remains something to take note of. As the country experienced periods of lost statehood, the exhibit guide explained, the language was its bastion of strength, allowing Armenians to maintain their culture independent of who was in control. Although spoken traditions can be very strong, writing down history and culture further protects them, and allows them to be kept hidden during the reign of an unfriendly nation.

The exhibit ended abruptly with the turn of the eighteenth century. Certainly more books were printed after that time, but either the curator ran out of space in the exhibition hall or decided that more modern books and manuscripts weren’t of interest. It certainly wasn’t for lack of documents, though, as Armenian manuscripts are housed in huge museums around the world, with one large one within walking distance of the museum. (We tried to visit, but it was closed, with no indication of when it might reopen.) For an exhibit that had, up until that point proceeded with such attention to detail and chronology, it was jarring to find that it ended with no information about modern Armenian publishers and certainly no looking ahead to ebooks or the impact of technology on printing.

Initially, this lack of attention to technology was comforting. I was pleased to see an exhibit so staunchly about the printed word and the objects it is found in. In that context, I thought, ebooks aren’t relevant. But the more I consider it, the more I worry that an exhibit about printing chose to ignore the modern context. Casting the beauty and importance of the physical book into a historical context is dangerous, because – from my Western perspective, anyhow – that seems to doom physical books to the past.

As I looked at the books in the Armenian exhibit, it was Skibsrud’s The Sentimentalists that I thought of most and not the trade paperback edition of Miriam Toew’s A Complicated Kindness sitting on my bedside table a few blocks away. It often feels like we’ve come so far from where we started, but for all the innovations and modifications to printing itself, the form of the physical book hasn’t changed much in 500 years: we no longer have to cut our own pages, but the essential structure and function have remained the same, which is certainly something worthy of celebration.


, ,