Roberto Calasso, the Florentine powerhouse, is seventy-five and a half years old—remember when time passed so slowly that we could count half-years?—and, short of the Nobel, about which we wrote last week, he has won just about every award there is. Apart from his work as a writer, journalist, and occasional academician, he is a publisher as well, the occasion of his most recent book, the mastermind behind the Italian house of Adelphi. There he has engineered some surprises, including some that are astonishing to him—for one, the sale, beginning in 2014, of more than 300,000 copies of the Italian edition of Carlo Rovelli’s Seven Brief Lessons on Physics, which has gone on to enjoy international success.
Another surprise, perhaps, is that one reader, American artist Eva Barbarossa, has made a project of reading 653 Adelphi titles to get inside the big questions: “Who am I? Why am I here? What does it mean to be human? What is my purpose? How did the world come to be?” And so forth. If you’re a bibliophilic reader, you’ll want to poke around in those questions along with her. As the cliché has it—one deftly played in Robert Gottlieb’s new memoir Avid Reader—run, don’t walk, to Barbarossa’s essay.
Why do we live indeed? Well, as those who are glued to their television screens in this grand playoff season know, it is to imbibe the glorious nectar that is baseball. We pause, though, to note with sorrow and appreciation the passing of W. P. Kinsella, whose novel Shoeless Joe became one of the best baseball films ever made, namely Field of Dreams. That 1989 film took a few sweetening liberties with Kinsella’s unsentimental prose, but nothing Kinsella couldn’t live with; as he told the Vancouver Sun a few years ago, “I just think magically, I always have.”
Truman Capote had an elfin, if not eldritch, quality about him, to be sure. So what to get for the collector who, tired of life and baseball, has it all? How about Capote’s ashes? Some lucky person, reports Fine Books & Collections, now owns them, having paid $43,750 for the privilege. Ironically, as the report notes, the sale coincides with Banned Books Week, Capote’s In Cold Blood having figured in at least one censorious move on the part of a hypervigilant school board.
There are friends of books, and then there are enemies. On the friends front stands Barack Obama, who, in conversation with the eminent historian Doris Kearns Goodwin, reveals himself to be a book nerd at heart. And more: says the departing president, “There is a big part of me that has a writer’s sensibility. And so that’s how I think. That’s how I pursue truth. That’s how I hope to communicate truth to people.” Indeed. Read the interview in Vanity Fair.
As to the enemies, well, there are religious fundamentalists of all stripes, for one thing. Some hound Truman Capote, and some burn mosques, as was the case when a misguided zealot named Ahmad al-Faqi al-Mahdi joined in the looting and desecration of the ancient Malian city of Timbuktu. Reports the BBC, al-Madhi is the first person to be tried in the International Criminal Court in The Hague for “damaging mankind’s cultural heritage.” He has pleaded guilty, and the verdict will soon be forthcoming. Perhaps being taught to copy manuscripts in the way of an ancient scribe would be one punishment fitting the transgression.
Gregory McNamee is a contributing editor. Photo above right is of Roberto Calasso by Giorgio Magister.