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Culture

Leipzig Celebrates Long Literary History

Home to one of the world's oldest book fairs, and a famous German creative writing program, the city of Leipzig is slowly returning to its literary glory.

A man standing beside a wall of books, reading.

The Leipzig Book Fair opens its doors Thursday

Leipzig hosted its first book fair in the 17th century and has earned itself a name as one of Europe's premier ink-smudged cities. Now, nearly 400 years later, the city once again plays host to the Leipzig Book Fair, held this year from March 13-16, 2008.

"Before the Second World War, Leipzig was known as the headquarters of the German book trade," said Sabine Knopf, author of the book, "Der Leipziger Gutenbergweg" ("Leipzig's Gutenberg Path"), which traces the city's literary history.

With its very own "Graphics Quarter" neighborhood, Knopf explained, the city served as a model for English publishers and booksellers in the 1920s, providing an organizational pattern that's spread throughout the world. By 1930, the city with 230,000 residents had 436 publishers, 277 printers, and 69 bookstores. One in 10 residents worked in the book industry.

The city hall of Leipzig, a symbol of 19th century architecture.

City Hall remains a symbol of Leipzig's grand past

All that changed once the Third Reich rose to power. Many Jewish-owned publishing houses were closed. The Graphics Quarter was destroyed during World War II bombing raids, burning along with it more than a million books. The city that had influenced publishing around the world no longer had a book trade of its own.

Struggling to re-establish itself

After the war ended, Leipzig struggled to return to its publishing heritage.

"Many publishing houses didn't receive licenses after 1945," said Knopf. "Publishers either moved away, closed, or were ousted."

Still, not all was lost. The renowned German creative writing program "Deutsches Literaturinstitut" -- known in the former East Germany as the Johannes R. Becher Institut -- was founded in Leipzig in 1955. The city's publishing industry likewise slowly began to re-emerge under communist rule.

Though German reunification saw many publishing houses close, Leipzig has since worked diligently to regain some of its former glory and to establish itself as a home for new literature. Training programs for booksellers were formed and small publishers began to develop in the city. Young authors moved there as students of the Deutsches Literaturinstitut.

The Leipzig Book Fair, reorganized in 1991 after a decades-long hiatus, also contributed to the renaissance. While focusing primarily on making German and central and eastern European literature accessible to the public, the book fair also seeks to highlight the city's literary traditions while giving back to the community.

Leipzig Reads

Teenage women reading books on the floor of the Leipzig Book Fair.

The Leipzig Book Fair appeals to old and young alike

One of the ways the book fair gives back is by concurrently running the literary festival "Leipzig Reads." Alongside the more than 2,300 exhibitions from 36 countries set up at the fairgrounds, the separate festival features 1,900 author readings in 300 locations throughout the city. From traditional spots like cafes and bookstores to more unusual locales, including a crematorium, "Leipzig Reads" showcases local offerings while connecting writers with their reading public.

"Leipzig has restored its literary character while dealing with difficult economic conditions," said Oliver Zille, head of the Leipzig Book Fair. "Without a doubt, these four days of the annual festival can help the city and the entire publishing sector."

This year's book fair and book festival take place from March 13-16, 2008.

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