TIME ZONES: Two Hours at a Buenos Aires Book Fair

At Annual Fete, A Nocturnal Tribute To the Printed Word

By Monte Reel
Washington Post Foreign Service
Wednesday, May 2, 2007

BUENOS AIRES For all those who love to read, who enjoy getting lost in crowds, who are intrigued by the idea of a powerful espresso after midnight, who loathe being rushed, who get mildly depressed when reading yet another article prophesizing a straight-to-hell future for the printed word -- this is the time and the place for you.

Technically it's morning. But really it's night. The wee hours, at the 33rd annual Buenos Aires International Book Fair, the biggest celebration for bibliophiles in the Spanish-speaking world.

Unlike some international book fairs, this one does not cater to publishing industry types. It caters to readers. These readers happen to live in one of the world's great nocturnal cities, where cafes do brisk business until dawn on streets named for writers -- Jorge Luis Borges, José Hernández, Adolfo Bioy Casares, and so on.

Seven minutes after midnight, the entrance to the exposition looks like an amusement park at noon on a Saturday. Chorizos, spicy sausages, and hamburgers sizzle on sidewalk grills, clowns hand out programs. Drum music pulses from a band of unseen street musicians caught somewhere between the thousands of readers leaving the fair and the thousands just arriving.

The publishing industry is shrinking in many countries, but not Argentina. Since an economic collapse in 2001, the number of new titles published annually here has more than doubled. Argentines are, for the most part, proud of their country's reputation as a literary capital in South America, and they're proud that their book fair is expected to draw well over 1 million visitors during its two-week run.

It is on nights like this when the fair is at its most quintessentially Argentine, when the national passions for reading and for the night feed into one another, when more than 35,000 pass through the entry gates after9 p.m., most lingering until the red-eyed hours.

At 12:15 a.m., Argentine writer and radio host Alejandro Dolina is speaking to a packed crowd in a lecture hall with a 1,000-person capacity; about 300 more people are sitting cross-legged on the carpet outside the hall's closed doors, watching a live feed from the discussion on a video screen.

In the main exhibition halls, books are the main attraction -- millions of them, displayed at the individual stands by more than 1,500 participating publishers. At one, Florencia Cianchetta opens a copy of the complete short stories of the Argentine literary icon Julio Cortázar, running her finger down the table of contents, while her boyfriend, Ariel Haimovici, looks over her shoulder.

"I love to read anything and everything," says Cianchetta, a 22-year-old communications student. "We're just browsing now -- we haven't bought anything yet."

There's time. It's only 12:30 a.m., and the fair isn't supposed to close until 2. At the food stands, some people are just getting around to dinner. Espresso is flowing freely at several cafes around the fair.

Others carry their coffee with them as they browse the enormously eclectic variety of stands. There are publishers of Arabic books, medical texts, legal tracts, military manuals and comic books.

"Buenos Aires is spectacular, no?" says Noemi Cecchi, 38, bumping shoulders with a crowd standing in front of one of the stands. "It never rests."

Observing visitor traffic between 1:15 and 1:45 seems to confirm the statement. It also encourages stereotyping, rash judgments that are almost certainly imperfect -- but that are fun to make anyway:

Argentine doctors are night owls; lawyers are not. Buddhist texts are engrossing late at night, whereas manuals displayed by Argentina's Institute of Naval Publications -- not so much. Those who like to read Japanese manga graphic novels don't get enough sleep, which must explain why they get so testy when gently questioned by reporters. But women who accompany their 4- and 7-year-old daughters as they browse through children's books with titles like "Flomenca the Cow" at 1:43 a.m. are patient and kind, and they deserve to be spared harsh judgments concerning parental discipline, bedtimes, etc.

By 1:50 a.m., 10 minutes before closing, some readers appear ready to cash in for the evening.

"It makes me so tired," says Angela Suarez, a 26-year-old student from Colombia, flipping laconically through a book called "How to Make Objects With Pearls." "There's just so many books."

But at the stand for the Imaginador publishing company, the one nearest the exit, people continue to browse up until 2. They read books about face-painting, about meditation, about child-rearing.

At the bottom of one of the shelves, a title boldly jumps off its soft cover: "How to Defeat Insomnia," by Alfredo M. Tensoni.

No one touches it.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company