Against the Anti-Art Literati: On Roberto Calasso’s ‘The Art of the Publisher’


Rebecca Novelli in The Millions:

Readers new to Roberto Calasso’s work often feel a bit bewildered, as if his books ought to come with a warning: This book is unlike any you’ve ever read. In addition to addressing the actual subject of the book, the reviewer must therefore explain who Calasso is, unpack his unorthodox rhetorical strategy, and provide some orientation to his uncommon perspective. This is easier said than done.

The Art of the Publisher, Calasso’s most recent work, consists of only 150 smallish and deceptively simple pages containing his speeches, essays, and occasional pieces about publishing. Briefly, he argues that publishing is an art, books are art objects, and the publisher is an artist. The publisher’s art has always been to provide the guiding sensibility for the publishing house and for the works it publishes. This sensibility is the mythos or spirit, if you will, of the publishing house. Today’s publishing houses lack this kind of vision and thus do not produce art. And the every-writer-and-reader-for-himself universe of electronic publishing cannot be art either, because it, too, lacks a guiding vision and the art object, books.

There could scarcely be anyone more qualified than Calasso to make this case, and The Art of the Publisher offers entry into his fascinating world of leading edge literati. Intellectually, he is elegant and stylish in an Italian way: traditional, subtle, original. He writes from his formidable knowledge and from his experience as a founder and editorial director of Adelphi, an Italian publishing house of exceptional depth and quality with a backlist that includes the likes of Friedrich Nietzsche,Milan Kundera, Vladimir Nabokov, and Leonardo Sciascia. He considers publishing itself a literary genre. He writes erudite and highly original works on subjects few have considered, never mind named. He has an international following.

Calasso’s rhetorical method is “always a mosaic.” [Paris Review, 2012] His PhD thesis concerned the theory of hieroglyphs in Sir Thomas Browne. He says, “[The] idea of a language made up of images is connected with all of my work.” [Paris Review.] His books often begin with an image, almost a digression, that he deconstructs bit by bit as he traces its presence here and there; explicating its relationship(s) within mythology, religion, art, literature, history, languages (he knows eight), and the classics; making unexpected and seemingly effortless connections; and finally arriving at a new meaning for which the original image is now an emblem of a much larger whole.

More here.