Publisher's Mark

Image: Adir Sodré


Commentary on the recently released book by Roberto Calasso

For Roberto Calasso, the job of an editor is very close to that of a boatman and a gardener. “Both the boatman and the gardener allude to something that pre-exists: a garden or a traveler to be transported. Every writer has within himself a garden to be cultivated and a traveler to be transported” (p. 134). The author steals the image from Dimitrijevic, an editor of Slavic origin who emigrated to Lausanne and with whom he shared good conversations at the fairs in Frankfurt.

This is just one of Roberto Calasso's beautiful descriptions in The Publisher's Mark (Aynê). This elegant edition, crowned by magnetic writing, which has just been published in Brazil, leads us to think that the whole book is an exercise in ekphrasis, destined to recover the beauty and style of editorial art.

The text vibrates on some essential questions that touch not only the already ill-fated world of books, but, in fact, our entire culture and the way we have related to technologies, information and knowledge. By assuming the editorial function as a form of mediation between the producer (writer) and the consumer (reader), Calasso raises elements for the elaboration of a theory of editorial art, or, at the limit, of “editing as a literary genre”.

Something very close to what the Californian typographer had claimed for his craft, inspired by a definition by Walter Benjamin. If literary style “is the power to move freely through the length and breadth of linguistic thought without slipping into banality”, typographic style is defined by “the power to move through the whole domain of typography and to act at will”. each step gracefully and vitally without being trite.”[I]. The essential point claimed by the writer, the typographer and the editor coincides, therefore, in not “sliding into banality”.

the unique book

Roberto Calasso is a prolific writer and internationally recognized editor with wide experience. Adelphi, the publishing house that shed light on new currents of thought in Italy in the 1960s, is the most eloquent testimony of an experience that is anything but banal. A convinced and daring liberal. Perhaps, arrogant in some assertions. However, holder of a rare generosity when introducing his companions on the journey. He entered the sacred temple of Laterza, Einaudi, Mondadori and the far-left aristocrat Feltrinelli, with small doses of provocation from Radetzky's homeland, mixed with other totally original titles in Italian bookstores. It is worth remembering that Adelphi's headquarters are in Milan, the scene of bloody fights against the Austrian army, in the Spring of the Peoples 1848.

At Adelphi, he elaborated – always within the perspective of a theory of editing – the concept of the single book, for which there is not only an interpretative key, but some paths of definition experienced in practice: “Nietzsche’s critical edition, which was enough to guide everything else; and a collection of classics structured around very ambitious criteria: doing well what had previously been done with negligence” (p. 11).

Thus, the concept of a “single book” gains weight and color in the choice of paper, cover illustration, typography, in short, through technical procedures and the expertise of an art that consists of composing an editorial catalog capable of bringing Joseph Roth's repertoire closer to that of Fernando Pessoa. At this point, it is impossible not to think of the adventure of the late J. Guisburg, who made Perspectiva a universal library.[ii]. Each title printed on those oblong volumes, wrapped in white covers, topped with colored stripes, which little by little formed their own tree of knowledge, made up a unique book, by an essential publisher. And the examples don't stop there...

 the essential book

With regard to the emerging culture of information above all and at any cost, Calasso is inflexible and his words overflow with the fine gall of irony. The promise of a digital library with broad and unrestricted access sounds as threatening to him as the replacement of printed books by e-readers. “The issue is that universal digitization implies hostility against a mode of knowledge – and second only to the object that embodies it: the book” (p. 43).

The elements that corroborate his analysis can be taken from current experiences, lived in Brazilian universities, starting with the process of disqualification of books led by Capes in the last decade. When their more accustomed emulators of the famous scientific journals – whose main power consists in making discoveries published in the previous issue obsolete – became the first horsemen of the apocalypse of the boring and sleepy culture of books, there were no surprises.

Greater astonishment was the reaction of the self-styled humanists, in the sense of downgrading, they too, publications in books. And as if these facts were not already extraordinary enough, the apostles of a new era appear, in which books become luxury objects. Or, at the opposite extreme, when they are relegated to the condition of supporting an allegedly superior and more democratic digital culture, or that of mere instruments to support didactic activity, as archaic as the old blackboard and chalk. By the way, a picture very familiar to Ray Bradbury's dystopia, making us believe, as the author observes, that “in this case the world could even disappear, as it would be superfluous” (p. 51).

From beginning to end, Roberto Calasso's words exude nobility. Moved by knowledge and faith – this, understood in the light of the Vedic seers, as “trust in ritual gestures”, in a continuous mental exercise – the figure of the editor is impregnated with this aura of discernment and judgment that is inscribed in a long cultural tradition. In his view, from Humanism printed on paper and ink by Aldo Manuzio.

And if “every true editor composes, knowingly or not, a single book made up of all the books he publishes” (p. 136), the fate of a very common type of contemporary editor is still tragic. More attached to business sagas than to the deep dive that knowledge imposes on him, he will have nothing left when he recomposes his trajectory. Bound to the conventions of fashion and the interference of the market, the poor merchant will be doomed to search the clouds for the marks of his past. For, in the end, every publisher recognizes that what is left is the essential: the book.

*Marisa Midori Deaecto is a professor at the Department of Journalism and Publishing at the School of Communications and Arts (ECA-USP). Author, among other books, of The Empire of Books: Institutions and Reading Practices in São Paulo in the XNUMXth century (Edusp; FAPESP).


Robert Calasso. Publisher's Mark. São Paulo, Aynê, 2020. 176 pages.


[I]Robert Brighurst, Typographic Style Elements, Version 3.0, Trans. by André Stolarski, São Paulo, CosacNaify, 2005, p. 25.

[ii]J. Guinsburg, Org. by Sonia Maria de Amorim; Vera Helena F. Tremel, São Paulo, Com-Arte, 1989 (Editando o Editor Collection, 1).

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