The Buenos Aires Book Fair is touted as “the most important annual literary event in the Spanish speaking world,” according to its website (well, no one said it was the humblest.) More than one million readers from all over Latin America reportedly come to the event (although plenty of illiterates come, too, if the numerous toddlers and babies can be taken as indicators.)
This year, the Book Fair ran from April 25 – May 13, and apropos of Bjorn and I, we managed to make it there on its very last day. The only other large-scale book fair that I’ve been to was the L.A. Times Festival of Books when it was held on the UCLA campus (it has since moved to USC — Boo! Go Bruins! )
The difference in experience between these two book fairs is vast. The L.A. Times Festival of Books was held mostly outdoors. People browsed through books lazily in the sun, incense wafted through the air, sometimes bands performed; a highlight of the event was the arrival of the Oscar Meyer Weinermobile. The atmosphere was more akin to that of a large, outdoor swap meet.
The Buenos Aires Book Festival, however, was more like the L.A. Auto Show. It, too, was held in the vast halls of a convention center — La Rural, Predio Ferial — and practically every square inch was jammed with books. There were few places to eat (although notably, the city of Amsterdam built a cafe inside), no outdoor concert stages. Like the L.A. Auto Show, the Buenos Aires Book Festival had a single-minded focus on only one thing. The events, and the attendees, were serious about books. People busily flipped pages, sifted through stacks and waited in long lines for author signings. And just like the L.A. Auto Show, people made a beeline to the booths and stands that gave away free stuff (I was no exception), mostly in the form of brochures and plastic bags. (I used to wonder why people were so obsessed with collecting plastic bags at convention shows, but now that I have to pay for bags at the grocery store, I’m beginning to understand the appeal.)
What I found especially interesting about the Buenos Aires Books Festival is that the embassies also get in on the act. Some of the countries represented included Armenia, Israel, Korea and the United States. Many of the embassies’ booths featured lounges with couches, along with books and artifacts from their country (the Korean embassy had a large, HD, flat-screen, LG TV that showed a continuous loop of K-pop music videos — nice.)
The amount of books at the book fair was only equaled by the number of people. At first I was incredulous that so many people would attend a book fair, but it makes sense given the prodigious number of bookstores in Buenos Aires (there’s at least one on every block it seems). It’s an incredibly literate city — which makes me even more disturbed about the difference between the government’s money exchange rate and the blue dollar. Having a well-read, intelligent population is no guarantee of good government (and yes, I realize it is a fallacy to use Buenos Aires as representative of the whole of Argentina.) I still say it’s proof once again that vast knowledge doesn’t necessarily lead to utopia.
But wherever Argentina ends up, at least it has something good to read along the way.