Going to the Fair
Now in its 23rd year, the Colombo International Book Fair has become something of a social event. One doesn’t go there merely to buy books; one goes there to see it. It was the same, I felt, at Gotagogama: one went there not only to shout, to scream, but also to be a part of it. Years ago, a particularly didactic newspaper editorial stated that the choice at the Fair was between reading books and eating noodles. This was a false dichotomy: one can read, and yet also eat. That was the point of Gotagogama too: one could go there to protest, and to have fun. What’s the harm in doing both?
I half-thought there wouldn’t be crowds this year. I was wrong. When I predicted a low turnout this time, a friend of mine suggested the very opposite. I retorted, pointing out that with an economic crisis hanging over us all, no one would be in a mood to go out. “But that,” my friend replied, “is why they will go to the Fair. They have been crushed so badly, deprived of many things they took for granted, that the Fair will seem like a return to normalcy for them.” COVID-19 had almost pre-empted the event in 2020 and prevented it in 2021. The crisis this year had pushed people into a different world. In that sense, my friend said, the Fair would be a welcome distraction.
Sri Lankans are noticeably finicky about books. Some like to read, some like to make others think they read, and some don’t read and make it a point of pride to say they don’t. I have seen and interacted with all three kinds of people at the Fair. The pleasures of walking to a bookstall, in other words, lie beyond buying or even going through books. There is a distinct pleasure in saying that you have been there. This is the biggest such event — though hardly the only one — where every local publisher gets together. It’s a virtual kaleidoscope, and for even those who don’t read it’s carnivalesque, much like Gotagogama. The pleasure, in other words, is in the total package, not in the immediate objective of buying a book
If going to the Fair is one point of pride, buying as many books as one can and condemning them to the dust of bookshelves is another. I have accumulated many books over the last five years, and there are still many I haven’t read. It’s not just the discounts that compel one to go on a spending spree here, however. It’s also the fear that you won’t get another chance to buy so much again. The Fair, after all, is a social event, and social events are those you devote your free time to. A “visit” to a bookshop, on the other hand, requires you to make time. You don’t enjoy the same level of freedom. That is why we are less relaxed when at a kade than we are when at a pola.
There has been justifiable criticism about the side-events at the Fair. Some, like the kavi mandapaya, are of course ancillary to the event’s literary ambitions. Others are not. Yet such criticism misses the point. Simply put, people wouldn’t go to the Fair if these events were not there, and the publishers wouldn’t get their worth. This point came to me when I looked at the price of the admission: at Rs 20, it hasn’t changed from what it was years ago. Publishers are desperate for buyers, and the only way to keep them coming back is by including as many distractions as they can.
The Colombo Book Fair is hardly the only such event that indulges in these distractions. Edward Jayakody’s anthem for the Fair, written by Bandara Eheliyagoda and constantly played everywhere, reminds you that you came here to buy books and read them. But to denounce those who gravitate to other pursuits is to forget that, in the 16th century, the Frankfurt Book Fair (the oldest of them all) included diversions like musical contests, roper dancers, drinking bouts, even gambling and prostitution. Eheliyagoda’s lyrics sound a tad hagiographic at times, celebrating the event’s worth, but consider that, in 1574, the scholar Henri Estienne composed a Latin panegyric on the Frankfurt Fair. Colombo is far away from Frankfurt, yet these events can, and do, bring different cultures together.
Not unlike in Frankfurt or Leipzig, the Colombo Book Fair coincides with a major literary awards ceremony, the Swarna Pusthaka. As such a not insignificant crowd comes here to grab autographed and discounted copies of the shortlisted titles. On my way out two years ago, I came across a group of teenage girls debating over who had been nominated and in what categories. Given the linguistic bent of these awards, one can argue that the Fair targets a Sinhala middle-class readership, though I concur that such generalisations are crass. Still, it’s the Sinhala books that sell like hotcakes, followed by the Tamil and, much more meagrely, the English.
Over the years there have been complaints that publishers market the same books, the same genres, the same themes. These are valid criticisms, and they can be made even of the Big Bad Wolf. But publishers cater to demand, and the demand is overwhelmingly for titles and genres which sell big. Teenage romances will always occupy a top seat, as they do at the Big Bad Wolf. Translations of this bestseller or that will also attract crowds: the student next to me, for instance, was hunting one stall after another for translations of Dan Brown, which he claimed to dote on like a prayer. There are other genres, like biography, which we like to go for. Sri Lankans love to read about great people, even if they dislike the cults which grow around them: translations of “personal memoirs”, for instance, sell big.
This is not to say that English books don’t sell at all. Yet even here, it’s the same titles and genres that readers lap up. Apart from Harry Potter, Roald Dahl, and comic books, not to mention biographies and autobiographies, there isn’t much of an audience for English here. Nevertheless, the big bookshops make it a point to include more serious and scholarly works at their stalls: Sarasavi this year, for instance, had not just Penguin Classics, but also Routledge, including one particularly unlikely title, Georges Lefebvre’s Napoleon. Perhaps it’s a symbol of how badly such books sell, but I saw only single copies of them. Surprisingly for a time of crisis, they were rather cheap: Lefebvre’s book was only Rs 1,250. Perhaps it was an old and unsold copy, a leftover from last year that fetched the old price.
My preferences tend to diverge from what passes for trends here. I always go for the less patronised publishers. Two years ago, for instance, I found a goldmine in the Archaeology Department stall. They were selling Paranavitana’s Inscriptions of Ceylon for Rs 500: so cheap for such a monumental work. Visidunu Prakashakayo sold The Handbook of the Ceylon National Congress, which records every session from that association, for Rs 775; this year they had Paranavitana’s Art of the Ancient Sinhalese for Rs 1,500. Progress Publishers sells Marx and Engels, and Lenin and Trotsky, for less than Rs 500 too: two years ago, when I made my way there, they greeted or rather “garlanded” me with posters of Che and Castro.
All this is in addition to the small bookstalls, which sell bigger treasures for much less. That Sri Lankans don’t read as much as they should and that they prefer glossy, expensively decorated books to the cheaper variety are, I think, intimately linked. That is why they don’t buy serious titles and why they don’t realise that there are much better deals at the smaller stalls. That is also why, when Sarasavi and Vijitha Yapa organised discounted, second book sales at various places in and around Colombo years ago, not many bothered to come over and check out what they had in store. Vijitha Yapa organised a second hand sale next to its Thurstan Road branch, which began in March and was supposed to end in April. But given that not many have come in, at least not as much as Vijitha Yapa hoped for, that sale is still open.
Brian Moeran has contended that book fairs are “tournaments of value” removed from the routine of everyday life. While agreeing with him, I would suggest that the fair in Colombo is a microcosm of the economics of book buying in Sri Lanka. It is not a tournament of value, but rather a reflection of what they like to read and what they like to buy. It is a social event, to be sure, but hardly removed from their preferences, desires, and habits.
In many ways the Colombo Book Fair is not as elitist as Fairs elsewhere may be. It brings people together and tries to incorporate as many preferences as it can. There’s room in it for everyone, even if, in the cacophony of popular opinion, it leaves little space for some. Year after year, I find myself an outsider here. But there is a point, while I am with friends, eating noodles, walking around for no reason whatsoever, when I feel like a part of something. It’s the same feeling I got on July 12 — when I spent a day, and passed a night, at Gotagogama. The Fair in Colombo, in that sense, is less a tournament of value than a leveller of taste.
The writer is an international relations analyst, researcher, and columnist who can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org