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Roberto Calasso has amicable connections among literary luminaries in Europe because, well, that’s what publishers do. They seduce writers. And they seduce them through their wit and intelligence and, above all, taste.

All of these are on display in Calasso’s slim The Art of the Publisher (translator Richard Dixon) where the owner of Adelphi Edizioni gossips about his long career while philosophizing about publishing and books. Not dwelling on numbers and graphs, Calasso shows that the mind of the publisher dwells in aesthetics and conceptual trends.

A delightful, gossipy little book

When not relating Adelphi’s origins, Calasso tosses out a conceptual gem or two for writers, editors, and publishers. Brightest among these is the idea of a publishing house as a single text. “By looking at publishing houses in this way,” he writes, “one of the more mysterious aspects of our profession might perhaps become clearer: Because he realizes that publishing it would be like putting the wrong character into a novel…” For a writer hoping to learn the nitty-gritty of publishing through the back door, however, Calasso is at best a mythological guide.

As a proponent for books, Calasso mounts a brilliant defense of the productive limitations of ink on paper. He describes the analogue book forcing the imagination to search without finding, a productive inward gesture rather than a mechanical solution. Reading The Art of the Publisher reminds one of the quiet pleasure of self-knowing found in books, the vital “role of the unknown” played by the white paper.