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Monday, June 17, 2024

On the ground in the World Book Capital City


A few days ago, I was in Strasbourg, designated in April 2024 the UNESCO 2024 World Book Capital City (WBCC). And that’s a fitting award, because for lovers of books and the printed word, Strasbourg is to some extent where it all began. It was there around 1440 that Johannes Gutenberg purportedly developed the principle of the movable-type printing press. Chinese and Korean printers were using their own variants of the principle several centuries before, but Gutenberg perfected it for the West, and set off the so-called Printing Revolution, disseminating Renaissance and Reformation ideas across Europe. Nearby Mainz, upriver along the Rhine, saw Gutenberg’s first actual print runs from his new invention, but Strasbourg venerates its own association with the earliest genesis of the art. 

Le Tigre Bookstore. Photo by Paul StJohn Mackintosh.
Le Tigre Bookstore in Strasbourg. Photo by Paul StJohn Mackintosh.

Strasbourg has been a cultural as well as a commercial entrepôt back as far as its Roman origins. Situated at one of the main crossing points on the Rhine, able to capture traffic both across and along the river, it has historically been the contested frontier between France and Germany, with its own native variety of German but comfortably ruled for centuries by Louis XIV and his successors. It boasts France’s second largest university, the University of Strasbourg, which, however, began life in the 16th century as a Lutheran humanist German Gymnasium. Strasbourg’s honours list of famous native citizens and residents draws deeply from both French and German culture: Angelus Silesius, Hans Arp, Georg Büchner, Jean Calvin, Gustave Doré, Meister Eckhart, Erasmus, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, Louis Pasteur, Camille Pleyel, Paul Ricoeur, Albert Schweitzer – the list goes on, and on, and on. 

As I said at the start, I can’t imagine a more appropriate city than Strasbourg for the WBCC designation. Its library system in particular is superb. The Bibliothèque nationale et universitaire (BNU) is a public library with over 3 million volumes, and France’s second largest library after the Bibliothèque nationale de France in paris. Its imposing main building, on the central Place de la République, administers ten other libraries scattered across the city, including the huge and far more modernist Médiathèque André Malraux, six storeys high. The BNU is open to any student or valid applicant for a reader’s card, which in practice means just about any resident or qualified visitor. As a result, it swarms with students, and has a seat-booking system for the weekend to ensure that everyone gets a fair try at its desks. 

Strasbourg also has a slew of excellent and characterful bookshops, from the compendious and dignified Librairie Kléber near the center, to funky independents like the Librairie Le Tigre on the quayside.

And Strasbourg definitely hasn’t been behind in visual displays for the WBCC and books. The exterior of the main railway station is now a mosaic of photos of readers with their favourite titles, of all ages and genres and types (the readers and the books). Now read on…

Featured Image: CC BY-SA 3.0

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