The Secret Euphoria of Reading: On Cento Lettere a Uno Sconosciuto by Roberto Calasso


Daniela Cascella in 3:AM Magazine:

I'm reading a book that collects a hundred book blurbs. It is titled Cento lettere a uno sconosciuto. It has a pale blue gatefold cover and, to date, no English translation from Italian. A Hundred Letters to a Stranger were selected and published in 2003 from over a thousand book blurbs written for the legendary Italian publishing house Adelphi by Roberto Calasso, who became Adelphi’s editor in 1971 and who is today its president, having worked for it since its inception in 1962. As he traces the antecedent of the blurb as a literary form to the 16th-century ‘epistola dedicatoria’—namely the ‘dedicatory letter’ in which a writer would address the prince who protected and financed his work—Calasso remarks: “Today there are no princes, there is a readership … made by individuals. Each reader whose eyes fall on a book blurb reads a letter addressed to a stranger.”

Between a multiplicity of readers unknown to authors, and books unknown to readers, Calasso’s blurbs don’t connect the Adelphi publications through the logic of a plan. Instead, connections are formed through the untidier, rapturous motions of reading and of the desire to read, holding together a multitude of contingent singulars. The anti-rational quality of each encounter with a book is favoured against any rationale. Presence overrides programme, in the same manner as Adelphi’s editorial output never followed a linear path but, rather, was prompted by ardor as the path to knowledge, maintaining that books do not hold stable original meanings but prompt intermittent and changing conversations. Knowledge is mutable, knowledge is the rhythm of rapture, “America is Lolita, Lolita is America.” Many Italians of my generation will still remember this sentence, partly a distant echo of “I am Heathcliff”, partly a lightning bolt of awareness as Calasso never aims to explain the books he writes around: he thrusts the readers in amongst the very texture of language. His blurbs have no claim to introduce or contextualise: they suggest possible ways of being with books, inside them, elliptical, undone, remade in reading, incomplete, blurred — and then, again, blurbed.

I always thought of the gatefold covers that enwrap Adelphi’s books and on which Calasso’s blurbs are printed as the other side of official words, as sites of otherness. Like the words in the blurbs that they support, the gatefolds point in their very form at what is concealed and unspoken; they outline a space of further thinking and further reading, where the resonance of a book rings and calls for connections beyond the book itself. In my eyes, Adelphi’s gatefold covers always instigated explorations behind the fold of a blurb, searching for the concealed matter of thought into words, for what is unwritten, hidden.

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