Krakow, one of Europe’s most important intellectual centres, is trying to fix the modern problem of people not reading books. Poems on walls and lectures in bookstores are keeping literature connected to today.
The fresh green of the trees is glowing in the park next to Krakow’s old town square. An old man dressed in a suit is sitting on a bench and leaning his chin on his walking stick. As you pass by him, you can see a square-shaped tile on the bench behind him that’s also on every other bench. If you look closely, there’s a name and code beside it that can be scanned using a smartphone.
This is not some secret code language, but rather a new invention in Krakow’s literature scene. By scanning the code you can listen to a piece of poetry.
“Half of the population uses smartphones, so it is indispensable to offer an access to literature with a new technology,” says Justyna Jochym, the international project manager of Krakow´s festival office.
The codes are a part of the festival office’s projects, which were initiated after Krakow received the UNESCO World Heritage Centre’s title as a ‘city of literature’ last October following Reykjavik, Edinburgh, Iowa City, Norwich, Melbourne and Dublin.
Jochym feels that Krakow is worthy of the title. “We have deep roots here: two Nobel prize winners Czeslaw Milosz and Wislawa Szymborska, many writers from all over the Europe come to Krakow to bring multicultural dialogue. The city is home to a poetic avant-garde [movement] and it hosts the two biggest literature festivals in Poland,” she says.
Although UNESCO’s title brings all kinds of activity into Krarkow’s literature scene, it doesn’t necessarily help the one problem plaguing the world today: people are simply not reading as much as they were before this era of quick information and entertainment. “The truth is that if somebody is not reading, why should this person care about what’s happening in the literary world?” Jochym asks. “We’re also using new technology, so we try to encourage people to read.”
In addition to using new technology to provide access to literature and encourage people to read, Jochym says the organization associated with UNESCO is supporting traditional industries like bookstores within the city, many of which were forced to close their doors during the last ten years.
Books and coffee go well together
Despite the general problems of the bookstores, there are success stories. One of them is Massolit Books & Café bookstore, which is located in the peaceful street of the old town where there are also cozy cafes and an assortment of antique stores selling army clothes. The bookstore has become a valuable institution in Krakow, as it ranked second place on the National Geographic’s Traveler’s list. The store has a large collection of second-hand books in English with specialization in Jewish Studies, Polish, and Central and Eastern European literature.
The bookstore is almost empty on a Friday afternoon. There’s an English lesson taking place in the corner of the room. A staff member organizes an assortment of books that align the dark wooden bookshelves, which stand out from the old-style posters that decorate the walls. The room is quiet except for jazz music playing quietly in the background.
David Miller is the owner of the bookstore. It’s easy to connect his appearance with his profession: he’s wearing intellectual-looking glasses, a classy sweater, a strong facial expression, and a charming voice.
“Usually when people come in for the first time, they think that the store has been here since 19…,” he says, with an almost startled pause followed by faint laughter. “A long time.”
But Massolit Books & Café has only been around since 2002. Miller opened the place with his friends after moving to Krakow. “It was a crazy idea to open a bookstore, but I mean, it is every graduate student’s dream,” he adds.
The most important part for the middle-aged bookstore owner is choosing the books for the store. Miller goes back to his motherland, the United States, a couple times a year to pick the books. “I just love picking books. It’s like picking mushrooms — some people are good at it and some are bad at it. I try to pick books that should be read,” Miller says.
Despite his efforts to find books for readers, the books are simply not enough anymore to keep the place alive. The bookstore is not only a place for people to have a cup of coffee, work in a casual atmosphere, or find books in English, but there are also events and open lectures being held.
As well, delicious-looking American cheesecakes and coffee attracts people to stop in the store, enjoy the nostalgic atmosphere and maybe end up buying a book. “I think that without the café we wouldn’t succeed. Nowadays it is so easy to buy books online,” he adds.
A woman wearing a yellow shirt sits in the corner of the bookstore. She’s holding a book in her hands and a tablet sits in front of her on the table. Hsin-yu Lin, who moved to Krakow in 2012 from Taiwan, comes to Massolit Books & Café to buy books and enjoy the atmosphere. “I prefer a real book. I’m more connected to it because it’s a real texture,” she says. “With tablets, you can’t read long, as it’s not comfortable.”
For Lin, books are not dead. “I think there will always be people who want to read real book,” she says.
It’s all about communication
The evening in Krakow is a stark contrast to the calm daytime atmosphere in Massolit bookstore. The city turns into a lyrical experience with illuminated squares and buildings of the old town. Catholic churches stand majestically in the darkness and people sit on the fountains and laugh with one another.
In the evening, it’s also easy to notice the texts that are projected on to the wall in Bracka Street, located in the city centre. If you look closely, you’ll notice the rhythmic lines of texts are actually poems.
“Hundreds, maybe even thousands of people, read these poems every day, because the projection is placed in a touristy and culturally well-chosen, central location,” says Polish writer, Michal Zablocki, whose poems on the walls are shown both in Polish and English. He has also built up poetry portals on the Internet where some of these poems, produced with internet-users are published on the walls of the city. All these efforts are a part of his attempt to include poetry in the contemporary technological world.
“I like living literature. Communication may be through a book, but it doesn’t have to be. We can read poems to people, sing them, publish them on Facebook profiles, or in any other place,” he says. “A book is dead if you don’t have a reader. We are for readers, they are not for us. But, of course, we have to promote a book as strongly as possible because it is still the best way we have.”
Zablocki’s opinion summarizes what’s happening in the whole literature scene in Krakow — new ways of presenting and publishing literature are necessary because they’re also supporting real books. It’s the same idea as the codes in the benches. People can have a relaxing moment with literature. They can hear either a famous or an unknown Polish author for the first time.
And after this moment, they might want to buy a real book.