For over five hundred years, barring a few interruptions, Frankfurt has been a magnet, both commercial and cultural, attracting publishers and printers, scribblers and spies. From neighboring towns to neighboring lands, then later from all of Europe, and eventually from all corners of the globe, anyone with a vested interest in the printed word would make his way to Frankfurt.Gutenberg might have been there, back at the beginning, in 1454. Maybe. We’re not entirely sure. But Peter Weidhaas makes a good case for it, illustrating the possibility with a short tale of a man of Gutenberg’s demeanor walking through the narrow streets of Frankfurt as the book fair was taking its nascent steps.This little bit of speculation opens Weidhaas’ recently-published A History of the Frankfurt Book Fair. No stranger to the fair, Weidhaas served as Director from 1975 through to the new millennium, and is uniquely positioned to offer colorful detail on the five hundred-year-old event. While at times there might just be too much detail (do we really need a half-page list, in the middle of the narrative, of publishers and printers attending the fair in the early 1500s?), there are still enough fascinating tidbits and tangents, woven together with what amounts to a quick history of printing and the printed word, to make this an engaging read.The fair rose and fell and then rose once more. Whether he attended or not, Gutenberg’s presence was felt, as, in the 1400s, Frankfurt began to gain fame as a center of trade for the printed word. Printers came to the city in droves, not just in Frankfurt, but in its arch-rival Leipzig.We get a glimpse into the development of paper as a replacement for parchment, and the rise of the paper mill, allowing information to reach the masses (or at least the educated among them) instead of just the economic elite who could afford paper’s pricey precursor. The demands of the book market were beginning to be met. By 1498 there were 118 publishers in Europe.Weidhaas gives us a taste of book culture at the time. The development of Humanism led to a revival of the classics. And there was a rise in popularity of travel-related publications. Let’s linger on that for a moment. What we’re actually talking about are accounts of voyages by Columbus and Vespucci to the New World and Marco Polo in China. Travel lit indeed!From Weidhaas’s peek into the 1500s, we find out that books were shipped unbound, and would be bound upon arrival at the fair. Later, much later, books would be sent bound and so could be sold year round. Publishers would eventually not need the fair (as it was then) to sell books. But then, as now, it was the sale of books that drove the book fair.Some colorful asides from that era: Weidhaas gives us a scathing account by Erasmus of getting a room at a German inn, and Weidhaas also notes the popularity, in the mid-1500s, of prose versions of German epic ballads from the Middle Ages – many with such titillating and enticing titles as “Emperor Octavian, how he banished his wife and two sons to a life of misery; and how, amazingly, they were once again reunited in France with good King Dagobert.” This verbosity was effectively an early form of sales advertising.While money was the driving force, Frankfurt was also becoming an intellectual hub of the time, despite not having its own university until 1914. Professors would meet each other at the fair; as would librarians, poets, archivists, mathematicians.Pamphlets of Martin Luther’s writings were made readily available to the people of Frankfurt. And later, during the Thirty Years War (1618-1648), we see mathematician Johannes Kepler flogging his books at the fair.Then there was a long, protracted fall. Between 1680 and 1690, nearly every publishing house in Frankfurt collapsed due to the indebtedness of publishers. As a result of this there was an anti-Semitic backlash, Jewish financiers becoming the scapegoats for the failure of the publishing houses, and regulations were imposed forbidding trading to Jews. In fact, it was the wars instigated by Louis XIV, and repercussions of the War of the Spanish Succession that crippled the economy.As well, the Reformation had moved the intellectual hub north, and the center of trade was shifting east, giving Leipzig an edge over Frankfurt. Bookshops in Frankfurt turned into bars.By the mid-1800s, even Leipzig was in decline. Book fairs – as they were envisioned then – had had their day, as the book trade was no longer dependent on fairs.The modern era of the Frankfurt Book Fair, after a few false starts, began in the late 1940s. The 1950 fair was a major success. It was both a cultural exchange and a trade show emphasizing merchandising and marketing. A literary peace prize had also been established – Albert Schweitzer won it that year – giving the fair an added PR boost.There was no shortage of intrigue in the post-war book fair. The Cold War and the building of the Berlin Wall led to the infiltration of West Germany (and the Frankfurt Book Fair) by East German spies! Beginning in 1967 and continuing into the 70s, undercover agents (using pseudonyms) from East German publishing houses were covertly checking out the activity at the fair, seeing which of their authors had books there.Weidhaas also flags some modern trends: the rise of paperbacks in the 60s to the more recent rise of the CD-ROM, the effects of the fatwa issued against Rushdie and the necessary security for publishers exhibiting his books at the fair, the banning (for two years anyway) of Iran from the fair, and the rise of inflated advances for big-name authors, at the expense of niche writers.A couple of caveats: When Weidhaas comes to the part of the fair’s history that was under his watch, and needs to refer to himself, he does so in the third person, which I actually found curiously endearing.Also, some of those same chapters are loaded with a bit too much minutiae – details of who exhibited where, and lots of internal politics. Those bits strike me as being of interest to those who were in attendance, less compelling to a casual reader. But as the book is divided into short chapters, it’s easy enough to skip over bits. It’s guaranteed there will be a fascinating surprise around the next corner.
So that you may get to know us better, we introduce The Millions Quiz, yet another occasionally appearing series. Here, as conceived of by our contributor Emily, we answer questions about our reading habits and interests, the small details of life the like-minded folks may find illuminating, and we ask you to join us by providing your own answers in the comments.Today’s Question: What’s on your nightstand right now?Emily: Deciding where the nightstand stops in my dorm room is something of a quandary. And sadly, in this final dissertation push, pleasure reading is a thing of the past (Swift Studies 2006, Romanticism, Nationalism, and the Revolt Against Theory, The Chicago Manual of Style…). But among the piles that daily encroach on my bed are two recent purchases: Dover’s paperback editions of Goya’s print series Los Caprichos and The Disasters of War. If you haven’t seen them, take a look. I hesitate to call either a pleasure, but they are, in their ways.Edan: I’m about to read The Great Man by Kate Christensen, which won the PEN/Faulkner Award this year. I enjoyed her previous novel, The Epicure’s Lament, and this one, about a recently deceased painter and the women in his life, sounds like something to dive into.After that, I’m going to give Edith Wharton my attention, beginning with The Age of Innocence. I also have a galley of Joan Silber’s novel, The Size of the World, the follow-up to her terrific and pleasing story collection Ideas of Heaven (which was nominated for a National Book Award).I just snagged the latest issue of Field, the poetry journal published by the Oberlin College Press, and a copy of Darcie Dennigan’s debut poetry collection, Corinna A-Maying the Apocalypse. Aside from this poetry reading, I’ll be steamrolling through months of unread New Yorker and Gourmet magazine issues.Garth: I seem to be having a big books problem this summer; my nightstand is about to collapse under the weight of three of them. The first is Roberto Bolano’s 2666, which I’m about 600 pages into (out of 900). The second is Gertrude Stein’s The Making of Americans, which I’m about 300 pages into (also out of 900)… and let’s just say that, for all that she does well. Gertrude lacks the, shall we say, narrative velocity of Mr. Bolano. Finally, clocking in at over 1000 pages, I’ve got Joseph McElroy’s Women and Men, which seems insane and brilliant and possibly unfinishable. I keep thinking there are only a finite number of gigantic books, and that once I get them out of the way I can move on, and then I learn about writers like McElroy. I’m also hoping to get to Robert A. Caro’s The Power Broker this summer. Seriously. In order not to get hopelessly depressed about my rate of reading, I try to read really, really short things in between the long things. My current favorite amuse-bouche or palate-cleansers are Lydia Davis’ Varieties of Disturbance and Ted Berrigan’s Sonnets. It occurs to me that I may be suffering from some variety of disturbance myself. Call it gigantobibliomania.Ben: I have 18 books on my nightstand at the moment, three of which I think I’m supposed to be reviewing. Most interestingly, I have two autobiographical accounts by historians who retraced the steps of Mao’s Long March. When I learned would be going to China this summer, I briefly toyed with the idea of spending a few months traveling along the route taken by the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) as they fled from the Kuomingtan. The three year journey was a harrowing race across thousands of miles of China’s most unforgiving wilderness, and it would eventually go on to become the founding myth of the CCP. Its story is replete with violence and political intrigue and following in its steps while observing how China has changed in the intervening years “would make one great book,” I thought. I was wrong. It has made two mediocre books. The Long March by Ed Jocelyn and The Long March by Sun ShuyunAndrew: It would appear that thirty or so books have taken up occupancy on or near my nightstand. This is where the triage happens. Every few weeks, books seem to show up, sometimes all at once, sometimes individually. Compulsive second-hand book-buyer that I am, I’m afraid I can’t control the in-flow.Like an ER, this may seem to be a chaotic place, but it’s functional and I give prompt attention to the book that demands to be read next. When completed, the book is transferred to the recovery area (aka the bookcases in my den), a much more orderly place. Calm. Perhaps too calm.I began M.G. Vassanji’s The In-Between World of Vikram Lall a few weeks ago, then had to abruptly stop when my life took a chaotic turn, and now that calm reigns once again, I’ve restarted it. Up next will likely be A History of the Frankfurt Book Fair, by Peter Wiedhaas, unless some literary emergency comes in off the street.Emre: My oft-cluttered, permanently dusty nightstand is home to months-old copies of Harper’s and New Yorker magazines, the occasional New York Times Magazine and four books. The books are all byproducts of articles I read in the aforementioned publications. Yet, despite the enticing reviews/mentions I find myself unable to read any of them. Top of the list is Tom Wolfe’s The Bonfire of the Vanities. After reading an article about the Bronx’s revival and realizing that as an adopted New Yorker with literary vices it is a sin not to have read a single Wolfe novel, I immediately picked up a used copy. Despite my best intentions to get going with it right after finishing Alexandre Dumas’s The Count of Monte Cristo, I am still only some 20 pages into the book. But it remains my top priority. Kind of.I might have a commitment problem. The second book is Parag Khanna’s The Second World: Empires and Influence in the New Global Order. A book review in the NYT, as well as an excerpt from the book which appeared in the Times Magazine, sounded oh so interesting and timely that the politics wonk in me returned from the depths, turning me into the four-eyed nerd that I actually am to begin reading about how global powers – U.S., EU, China – are attempting to wrest control of the Second World – a term formerly ascribed to the communist bloc, which now may be morphing to describe emerging-market and resource-rich countries. Despite its accessible, Thomas Friedman-ish language, however, I am stuck at the end of Chapter 1. I blame my job for it. Part of my work description is to read news all day. After reading the Wall Street Journal, NYT, the FT and assorted other publications all day long, I have little appetite left for politics and business. On the other hand, I do feel an urgency – as in, lest I read this in the next six months, it may be obsolete.Sharing the third spot and making for a potential good duo-read are my girlfriend’s birthday presents to me: Walter Lippmann’s Public Opinion and John Dewey’s The Public and Its Problems. The gifts were, of course, not coincidental. They were conceived in the aftermath of a New Yorker article about the dying news industry (damn you, Huffington Post, et al.!) and born of our conversations regarding, well, the dying news industry. As conceptually interesting as Lippmann and Dewey’s books are, they also fall into the realm of thought-provoking, attention-requiring books, a la The Second World, which these days is a far stretch from the TV-watching couch potato I am after work. I might have to add a new book to my nightstand. Something in the 200-300 page range that involves fiction and is a light read – as in Dr. Seuss’s Oh, the Places You’ll Go!-light. Any suggestions?Max: I’ve got just one book on my nightstand: Joshua Ferris’s Then We Came to the End, which Mrs. Millions recently finished and which is waiting to be put back on the Reading Queue shelf. I’ve also got a teetering stack of magazines – issues of The New Yorker, The Week, and The Economist – that keep from reading my books. The book that I’m currently reading, meanwhile, is more often in the same room as me (or in my laptop bag if I’m on the go). This does make for occasional overnight stops on the nightstand.So, tell us, in the comments or on your own blog: What’s on your nightstand right now?