Ljubljana is the capital of Slovenia and, like Norwich, a UNESCO City of Literature. I’ll admit I had to Google both Ljubljana and Slovenia to fix them on my mental map, though it probably wasn’t such a good idea to admit this to Mateja Demšič, the Head of the Department of Culture at Ljubljana’s city council. She winced.
But then Slovenia is a fairly new nation, most recently the northernmost part of Yugoslavia, and before that incorporated into the Austro-Hungarian empire, with complicated periods of occupation and subdivision during and after the world wars. It seceded from Yugoslavia by massive popular vote in 1990, and joined the European Union in 2004. I learned all this from Wikipedia, and while Slovenian identity goes back centuries, Mateja and others stressed the importance of literature in creating a sense of national identity. Slovenia, the writer Andrej Blatnik told me, is a nation that came out of the spirit of poetry. For Mateja, the poetry is a matter of public policy.
If Norwich’s claim to be a City of Literature is based mainly on the writing to have come from here, Ljubljana’s is based mainly on the reading that goes on there.
They are a dynamic group: a small office doing huge amounts.
It’s a city founded on public libraries. There are 36 of them, serving a population of just 280,000. And the habit of reading is encouraged more or less from birth. The Ljubljana Reads scheme means that each new Ljubljanian is presented with a book on his or her first visit to a paediatrician. Another book is gifted on every child’s first day at primary school, and again when they enter second grade. The city foots the bill. Meanwhile, every schoolchild joins the venerable Reading Badge scheme – it’s now 60 years old – for which there are reading lists, reading bees, competitions, and, it seems, lasting social shame for non-participation.
In addition to the bricks-and-mortar libraries, there are also pop-up libraries in the city’s parks. Fourteen years ago, Tina Popovič invented the Library Under the Treetops scheme, which has seen bookshelves and deckchairs appearing in the city’s green spaces every summer since. Tina is now also the organizer of Ljubljana’s Office of the City of Literature, supported by Damjan Zorc and Nika Kovač. Besides being as charming as the Library Under the Treetops idea, they are a dynamic group: a small office doing huge amounts.
Last year Ljubljana was the European Green Capital (‘an initiative of the European Union’). It’s a city that attracts awards. It’s a very attractive city. In 2010 for instance it was designated a World Book Capital, out of which an international literary festival, Fabula, has become an annual event, again supported by the council. Books are borrowed, and books are sold, 50% of them in translation. Bilingualism is the norm, and nurtured in schools along with the habit of reading. As a result, younger readers increasingly buy books in the original English. Miha Kovač, an editor at Slovenia’s largest publishing house, Mladinska Knjiga, said it’s as much as 20% of books sold in the country as a whole. In the vast Konzorcij bookshop in the city centre, the English-language section (heavily literary, almost all contemporary) is as large as many independent bookstores in the UK. Around half the books sold by Konzorcij are in English.
The Green Capital designation was initially the more prominent of the city’s accreditations. It lasted for just a year, whereas the City of Literature accreditation – awarded in 2015 – is for life. Both Tina and Mateja mentioned that the aim is to have it gradually ‘infiltrate’ all aspects of the life of the city. A ‘palace of literature’ is being developed in a converted sugar factory; writers’ residencies are planned. And increasingly, the habit of writing is being encouraged as well as the habit of reading. Which is where I come in.
I was invited to Ljubljana by the Office of the City of Literature and Miha Kovač, who – besides being a publisher – is the former editor of Yugoslavia’s chief opposition weekly, a prominent journalist, and now a Professor of Publishing Studies at Ljubljana University. I was to give a talk at the Slovene Book Fair on the rise of Creative Writing in UK universities. Held in a conference centre in the centre of the city, the fair seems to epitomise Ljubljana as a City of Literature. Over a hundred stalls, thousands of visitors. Everywhere there are books, and readings, and writers being interviewed, and troops of schoolchildren, and families… It’s lively. And somewhere in amongst it all I found an audience interested in the idea that the Department of Library and Information Science and Book Studies at the Faculty of Arts at the University of Ljubljana might soon start awarding degrees in my discipline.
In truth, it wouldn’t be such a big step. Like Angus Wilson at UEA in the 1960s, Andrej Blatnik is both a well-known writer and an academic and has been teaching writing informally at the university for several years already. Over dinner in Švicerija, an art centre in the heart of the Tivoli park, his Dean of Faculty appeared to agree that it was finally time to turn this into a formal degree course. And the remarkable thing, among other remarkable things, is that this was also the wish of Mateja Demšič of the city’s Department of Culture and Tina Popovič of the Office of the City of Literature Office and Miha Kovač of the Mladinska Knjiga publishing house. In the literary city of Ljubljana, in other words, everyone is reading from the same page.