Europe's Latest Page-Turner

Aug 31, 2010 | Updated May 25, 2011

There's yet another reason to toast the European literary scene besides the emergence of Larrson Steig. If you're drinking Horace Engdahl's Kool-Aid -- the Swedish literary critic (and self-styled know-it-all) who recently claimed that Europe "still is the center of the literary world" -- then you'll want to check out Ljubljana, Slovenia the new center of the center.

You might even feel a little sheepish carrying your escapist John Grisham summer read in Ljubljana, this year's World Book Capital, a city that takes its literature as seriously as it takes its prized signature crèam cake. (Not that blithely savoring a piece of one while getting lost in the pages of the other under a designated "reading tree" is a bad way to spend an afternoon in this capital city and nerve center of life in Slovenia.)

In this tiny central European country of two million, the capital of about 275,000 -- a mini Prague in its own right -- is teeming with charming bookshops and overflowing with literary treasures, programs and special events to mark the special UNESCO designation. The very vibrant literary scene here reveals that the country's literary life is a story still unfolding.

Ljubljana itself is like a long-lost book that you've rediscovered: old, a little dusty and dog-eared, but you'll be thrilled with what you find inside. The city is relishing the literary limelight now, and its beefed up reading programs and events -- 300 in total over the course of the year -- attest that it can compete with its formidable, better-known sister cities for literary supremacy. Locals and tourists alike are delighting in the bottomless literary reservoir that promises an auspicious year of the book.

Events to look for:
Visit the Trubar House of Literature, a dedicated building for the World Book Fair filled with special exhibitions, readings and book clubs, and named after Primoz Trubar, Slovenia's first recognized published author in the 16th century. Look for the "Library Under the Treetops" series, the "Books for Everybody" project (hoping to ensure the accessibility for books for every demographic), the Give a Book, Take a Book program on city trains and bus stops, plus diverse readings, discussions, programs promoting literacy for kids, guided tours of Slovenia's literary luminaries and enhanced public reading spaces, where people of every walk of life commingle over the written word. Culminating in April 2011 will be the Art Maze, a maze park to be landscaped to literary perfection -- and punctuated with special written treats along the park's 500 specially-arranged trees.

A casual stroll along the sun-dappled Ljubljanica River from the Triple Bridge feels like an unintended pub(lishing) crawl. Slovenians prefer their literature as they prefer their cuisine: on the hearty side -- with chaotic, disorganized stacks of hard-charging art, philosophy and classics -- just the way you'd want to get lost in a bookstore for hours. And with 20 or so bookshops around the city center -- large and small -- it won't be long until you drift into the next one.

Slovenians are proud of their literary lineage, and their greatest product might be Ljubljana's most renowned 19th century poet, France Preseren. Creating an indelible influence the Slovenian literary community while putting Ljubljana on the map, his presence still emanates today -- in Preseren Square and beyond. Ljubljana boasts its own 'Library of Congress' of sorts -- the National and University Library has a copy of every new book in the country -- and is as much an architectural wonder as it is a literary one. Its famed reading room isn't just perfectly pristine -- it's a huge source of pride for the city.

The bustling Preseren Square comes alive at night -- even in August, when it's said that even the homeless flee to the coast -- and books are a major point of interest. Browse by the many open stalls for stacks of literary delights. The Felix bookstore chain, a big-box bookstore, will boast your typical commercial best-sellers, but over at the beloved Bukvarna -- a small, stuffy, cramped and disorganized book shop perfect in every way -- the owner, Edo Torkar (a local literary legend) has every right to be proud. He cites the small victories the publishing community has recently seen in Slovenia, but still longs for the vibe of yesteryear. The shop's wistful tagline "Good old books from the good old days" is true to its word: an hour browsing in the store can easily transport you to a much different, rigorously intellectual era in Europe. But it's not all high-brow: one copy of "Urtnice so rdece" is thankfully available; that's The Roses are Red by James Patterson, for a mere five euros.

Come for the cream cake, stay for the literary delights. Frankfurt, watch out! There's a new European city lapping at your literary heels. Be sure to visit Ljubljana while it holds the title until April 23, 2011
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