Moisés Naím discovers Sant Jordi (2016)

In 2016, a lot of foreign visitors discovered the Sant Jordi books-and-roses activities during a weekend stay in Barcelona, among them the Venezuelan foreign affairs commentator Moisés Naím. His impressions are reproduced here as an exercise in translation, as International Book Day (April 23) is around the corner again.

A miracle in Barcelona

Despite the upswing in new technologies, the Saint George’s feast still remains massive. This year there were sold 1.6 million books.

“A rare, extraordinary, and wonderful event or thing.” This is how the word “miracle” is defined by the Royal Spanish Academy [“milagro”].

Last week I was present at an event that was all together rare, extraordinary and wonderful. For the first time, I attended the feast of Sant Jordi in Barcelona.

As it happens, every year on April 23, the Ramblas boulevard of the Catalan capital fills up with roses, books and people.

The celebration of Saint George’s, the region’s patron saint, is naturally very old. Linked to the legend of the saint, in the 15th century there was popularized the custom as to which on this day the men give their loved one a red rose. From the 1930s onward, the festivity coincided with the celebration of Book Day. And so there was begun the practice that in exchange for the rose, the women gave a book to their man.
To affirm that these customs are well rooted doesn’t do justice to describe what happens on this day in Barcelona. In the Catalan capital, on Saturday, April 23, there were sold 1.6 M books and nearly 6 M roses. Nearly 1,000 booksellers put up their stalls on the Ramblas, where it is estimated that more than 1 M people passed by. Hundreds of authors, of which many had come from other countries, sat down to sign books for their readers. On that Saturday alone, bookstores took in nearly 21 M EUR, which is equivalent to 10% of their annual sales.
The masses of people, of young and old couples, complete families, mothers with their babies, and people of all varieties and ages interested in books, in talking to their favorite authors –or to new authors of which they had never heard before– or simply interested in walking through the streets full of roses and books created a wonderful atmosphere. In other parts of the world, open air events that attract millions of people tend to be accompanied by both a high alcohol consumption and a certain insecurity. Not so with Sant Jordi. I didn’t see anybody who had taken a glass too much or who acted in a menacing or aggressive manner. Even though, as the rest of Europe, Spain is on heightened alert in front of the threat of new terrorist attacks, this danger seemed to be very far away from the minds of those who took to the streets. On this day, street crime, violence and terrorism didn’t exist. This was a feast of coexistence and culture which is hard to find in other places.
So much so that Markus Dohle, one of the foreign participants, commented to me that his dream would be having an event like Sant Jordi in Manhattan, where he lives. “Imagine Broadway full of stalls selling books,” he told me. That is not a disinterested desire. Dohle is the CEO of Penguin Random House, one of the biggest publishing empires in the world, and their headquarters is on Broadway. Dohle wasn’t the only foreign visitor who felt envy while experiencing Sant Jordi. A lot of us who came from other countries thought about the possibility of promoting something equally ambitious in our cities. There are a lot of book fairs and festivals. Some of them are even bigger. But nowhere one breathes the atmosphere of joy and civilization produced by Sant Jordi. For this reason it is surprising how relatively little known this event is outside of Spain. The opportunity to convert it into an international destination has to be used.
Another of the reasons why I felt that in Barcelona one experienced a miracle is that, in theory, the passion for books, and specifically for paper books, should not exist any longer –or at least not with the force that I perceived on Sant Jordi. Today we are told that books printed on paper are on their way to extinction. That as to cost and convenience they cannot compete with e-books, and that in the future they will only be decorative objetcs or museum pieces. The experts also tell us that social networks and other revolutions in information technology will bring with them that our attention will become more and more fragmented and that we will be constantly distracted, all of which doesn’t lead to reading. In this age there dominate the 140 characters of a tweet on Twitter, not the 500 pages of a good book. Who has got nowadays time to read books?
But it seems that none of this has reached the passionate readers who assembled on Sant Jordi. They continue to read. And on paper. And thus, every year, they create a “rare, extraordinary, and wonderful thing.”
This week don’t follow me on Twitter. Read a book.

 

Due to the fears of terrorist attacks, the Barcelona city government will try to somewhat deconcentrate the 2017 festivities. Let’s hope that despite this they will be as joyful as described by Naím.

You can read more on the Sant Jordi [Saint George’s] festivities in this older post, that links to other still older ones…

SOURCE: El País, April 30, 2016

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