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Culture

Germany's 'literature houses' stress reading books over selling them

Germany's first literature house was founded in Berlin in 1986, even before American bookstores started selling cappuccinos. Now, the concept of a non-commercial meeting place for book lovers has caught on.

A stack of books

Literature houses make reading interactive

Outside of Germany, literary houses aren't particularly common.

"That's because it's a very German tradition for people to sit in a room and listen to a reading for 45 minutes," Rainer Moritz, the program director at the Literaturhaus Hamburg, told Deutsche Welle.

Elsewhere, it's more common to have book signings and discussions with authors about their latest work. These events are often designed to get people into the bookstore, publicize both the author and the shop, and ultimately sell more books. Literature houses, on the other hand, are less commercially motivated.

According to Moritz, literature houses aren't just a place for authors to make a stop on their marketing tours.

Rainer Moritz

Moritz heads the umbrella organization for German-speaking literature houses

"The idea was not only to create a place for reading, but also a gathering place, where authors could meet, translators, journalists and critics," said Moritz. "That's why, for us, cafe and bookshop often go together."

Literature houses don't just open their doors for special events - they're also a place where people can meet for coffee or sit and flip through a magazine.

Dealers of a legal drug: books

"We have the books of the 150 authors who come through during the year - also other books they've written, but we stock other things too, sometimes just things we find interesting," said Stefan Samtleben from the Literaturhaus Hamburg.

"We've got the stuff for the reading addict and we're just the dealer of the legal drug and help people have their next trip," he added.

The Literaturhaus Hamburg should be a place for many different kinds of literature, emphasized Mortiz. "Not for all kinds, of course, that wouldn't work because there is a mainstream that has no need for literature houses. But I always think it's sad when literature is so narrowly defined that many forms are excluded and personal taste becomes a main criterion."

Literature houses like the one in Hamburg focus on newly released works, but each is free to set its own emphasis. Often several authors are invited at once to discuss a particular topic, or talks on historical, political or philosophical issues are organized.

A growing literary network

In 2002, 11 literature houses across Germany and Austria formed an umbrella organization, Literaturhaus.net, run by Moritz. The houses plan joint projects and organize a literary prize each year; the winner is then invited to conduct readings at all 11 locations.

While there are many other literary organizations in German-speaking Europe, they cannot join the umbrella organization unless they're big enough.

A reading at the Literaturhaus Hamburg

A literature house should be a gathering place, said Moritz

"We need houses of a certain size," said Moritz. "They need to be international and not just invite German-speaking authors or organize local projects. And, for practical reasons, they have to have a certain budget" that is capable of financially supporting Literaturhaus.net.

The individual literature houses are funded by private clubs or foundations, by renting out their facilities, or by government contributions. They're always on the lookout for new sponsors.

Despite occasional financial difficulties, the literature house concept has established itself so well that it's been exported to other European cities, including Prague, Copenhagen and Oslo. In Prague and Copenhagen, the houses are even identified by the German word..

"That really speaks for the label 'Literaturhaus' that has developed over the past 20 to 25 years," said Moritz.

He said that the word Literaturhaus did not exist in Germany's definitive dictionary, Duden, until he campaigned to have it added. It first appeared in the 2007 edition.

Author: Heide Soltau (kjb)

Editor: Kyle James

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