One-on-one | Tirana

Matthew Rosen: Reading creates a community of imagination

By - 14.04.2023

American anthropologist talks Tirana, publishing and outdoor book markets.

In 2015, when anthropologist Matthew Rosen met Ataol Kaso and Arlind Novi of the independent publishing house Pika pa sipërfaqe (Point without surface) he immediately had the feeling that “this could be the start of a new project.” Seven years later, after countless summer days of doing ethnography on reading practices and their relationship to social life in Albania, these conversations have taken the shape of the book, “Tirana Modern: Biblio-ethnography on the Margins of Europe” (Vanderbilt University Press, 2022).

The book follows the development of Pika pa sipërfaqe into an alternative literary space and traces how book circulation, reading, translation and publishing create social relationships in post-socialist Albania. Rosen, who is a professor at Ohio University, pursued this “biblio-ethnography” in order to explore what people do with books and what books do with people.

K2.0 met with Rosen to discuss the idea of biblio-ethnography, the story behind Pika pa sipërfaqe and what open air book markets on the streets of Tirana tell us about the past, the present and the future of the country.

K2.0: In “Tirana Modern” you use the term biblio-ethnography to describe what you do as an anthropologist. Tell us more about this phrase. 

Matthew Rosen: From my relationship with Arlind and Ataol from Pika pa sipërfaqe, I formed the idea of this word biblio-ethnography. It is just ethnography, but an ethnography that specifically concerns the relationship between books and people. The word came to me as a way to describe what I was doing with these publishers: I was trying to understand social life in their time and place through the relationships that they create with people and institutions across borders through books.

How did you encounter Pika pa sipërfaqe? What made you decide to do an ethnography of their publishing journey?

My original interest, which I’ve developed over a long time, is in the ethnography of reading, understanding how the actual practice of reading creates social relationships and makes things happen in people’s lives.

The first place I explored this idea was in graduate school, for my PhD research in India, in a city called Pune, in Maharashtra. I ended up doing ethnography about this network of roadside newspaper libraries and the kinds of communities that are brought into being because of those spaces.

At the time I was at the New School for Social Research’s anthropology  program. There I met Smoki Musaraj, who grew up in Tirana. We formed a relationship, a marriage. So after I finished this project in India, I found that although it was difficult for me to go back and do more fieldwork in India, I went to Tirana every year because Smoki has family there.

Rosen’s “biblio-ethnography” of Tirana looks at how books and publishing creates new social and intellectual connections. Photo: Courtesy of Matthew Rosen.

I was looking for a way to develop this ethnography of reading in Albania. Smoki told me about this bookshop, E Për7tashme. This was around 2015. I went on to the Facebook page of E Për7tashme and I liked it and one morning I opened up the page and there was an announcement that said, “Book fair today — new and used books.”

I went that day thinking this would be a good day to start the fieldwork for the new project. I didn’t know that Pika pa sipërfaqe existed. I just went [to E Për7tashme] and I saw that there was a lot of activity. It was very lively, with lots of people. 

What struck me immediately was the display of Pika pa sipërfaqe books. Smoki was there with me that day and she helped me establish contact. And we started to talk. 

The first thing that I noticed on their stack was the cover of Kurt Vonnegut’s novel, Slaughterhouse Five, because they had used the same sort of iconic cover design of the copy that I read in English when I was a teenager in high school. We talked about how the narrator of Slaughterhouse Five is an anthropologist, he studied anthropology at the University of Chicago. Kurt Vonnegut also studied anthropology at the University of Chicago and he channels his experience into the narrator’s life.

We had a very nice conversation, we connected immediately. I was very excited, I thought this would be the start of a new project. So I started going to E Për7tashme every day. [Talking with Arlind], I started learning about this publishing house, how they had formed it and what they were planning. I kept asking Arlind questions about books, publishing and translation. His answers always pivoted very quickly from the topic of books to a social critique of everyday life in Tirana in Albania, about violence and corruption.

This was the beginning of a relationship that is still ongoing, where I have used this notion of biblio-ethnography to talk about books and authors as a way into a social analysis of what matters most to people, how they see and experience their life.

In your book you talk about “reading nearby” as a reflection on reading as a collective social activity.

One sense of reading nearby is using reading as a way into social relationships and social life — as a technique of ethnography. The other way means all kinds of projects and partnerships that extend outward from a reading practice. The story of how this publishing house was formed is a great example of what this idea of reading nearby means. So in the book I retell the story that Arlind and Ataol told to me about how they met.

Arlind has had a lifelong obsession with books. He’s from Elbasan. He started working at a bookstore in Elbasan before he moved to Tirana. When he was in Tirana he drew on some connections that trace back to Elbasan. Part of the idea of reading nearby is to pay attention to all kinds of connections that go through literary channels. So his work at the bookstore in Elbasan came through his relationship with Pëllumb Zekthi, brother of Rudian Zekthi who is a sort of partner of the poet Ervin Hatibi, through a literary journal formed in the 1990s in Tirana that was called E Për7tashme — which is also the name of the bookstore where I first met Arlind and Ataol.

Ataol moves in a different circle in Tirana but he was also interested in finding old physical copies of this E Për7tashme journal that only had four editions in the 1990s. He was searching for them in all of the different places that one would go in Tirana to look for an old journal from the 1990s. So he goes to E Për7tashme.

New books from Tirana are "circulating to places like Prishtina, finding new readers and creating new kinds of social reality," said Rosen.

There he meets Arlind, who was working in the evenings at the bookstore while he was going to university. Ataol says, “Do you have this journal?” Arlind replies, “No, we don’t have it.” But then they start talking, “Oh, you’re someone who knows about that journal.” This opens up a new relationship that after many years becomes a business partnership. The idea of creating this publishing house really starts from nothing — just the meeting of two friends who are talking about a book that they want to translate into Albanian and then looking for someone who might want to publish it, and not finding anyone who’s very interested in publishing it, but then saying, we could do it ourselves.

That one point opens up this whole universe where now you have a publishing house with a catalog of over 120 books. Each of those books is circulating, to places like Prishtina, finding new readers and creating new kinds of social reality that never would have existed otherwise. 

Tell me more about the outdoor book markets of Tirana.

I have this idea that the circuit of books on the street is a kind of index, just like the index in the back of a book. I feel that the books on the street have indexical values. When you’re wandering around, you can’t help but notice their presence and then you look at one particular book and think: what does it point to?

Some point to the history of very harsh communism, from 1944 to 1991. When you look at what are the titles on the streets in Tirana today, you notice Enver Hoxha, Stalin, Lenin, Marx, Engels and books written in the style of Albanian socialist realism. These are the books that are still circulating on the streets because they were published abundantly when no other books were allowed to be published.

During communism there was this huge publishing project that aimed to create a new form of consciousness, the morality of the working class. So you have a state-run publishing house that is publishing thousands of editions of these books, and these are the only books that are available. After the system collapses, people say, “What am I going to do with these books?”

Another index that it points to is the massive migration during the 1990s. When people go abroad in search of something else, one of the things they do not bring with them is a big box of heavy books. They find a bookseller to sell them to or they just throw them out. This points to other indexes of how the books wind up for sale on the street through these networks of the Egyptian Roma community in Tirana, who go through every place in the city and find everything with resale value and bring it to the market on the periphery, where the book vendors go and collect those books at a very small price and then recirculate them.

These are the kinds of stories that you can pick up from looking at those books on the street.

So we can start to see all forms of social relationships, informal markets and sellers. This is one of the things that I was very interested in. How do you make a living from this? What brings you to the park to sell the books? And that opens up different kinds of stories. Maybe you came into the new era of Albanian reality with a structural disadvantage, because you were persecuted during communism. Or you had a good job and were respected because you’re a member of the Communist Party, which you lost in the transition.

These are the kinds of stories that you can pick up from looking at those books on the street. And I also find that there is a kind of community, almost like a family that exists among the sellers and the collectors, the people who are going around everyday collecting books. It’s in some ways a dysfunctional family because there are conflicts.

Another way books come to the street is when people die. They leave behind a shelf of books, and people don’t know what to do with them. The family often will just get rid of the books, they’ll sell them on the street, they’ll throw them in the garbage, but then those books will find their way into the collection of someone like Arlind. And now some of them are in the library of this new reading community. 

What would you say is the difference between how people engaged with books during the socialist period and how they do now?

If you think about the idea of reading as a way of creating a community of imagination, my sense of it, just from talking to people, is that during socialism, there was a very defined community of imagination, where almost everyone who read books read the same books. Anyone who was a reader read this canonical set of literature that was translated during socialism because there wasn’t a proliferation of choices. If you were a reader, then you read the Don Quixote translated by Fan Noli and then talked to your friends about the Don Quixote translated by Fan Noli.

I think that now reading choices have become so fragmented and because of that you have different communities of imagination that exist. So there’s a community of imagination that is circulating around the kinds of books published by Pika pa sipërfaqe or Zenit Editions. They have created a defined kind of community of imagination which crosses into Kosovo and all over the world.

However, if I talk to people in other bookstores in Tirana and try to find out what people are reading, it’s very different.

The publication of Lea Ypi’s book, “Free: Coming of Age at the End of History” in Albania caused a whirl of polarizing reactions. Have you followed the debate in Albania about her book?

I will say, I didn’t follow it closely. But I’m aware of it. I do think that is symptomatic of an extremely politicized field of cultural production in Albania.

Let me just compare it to the United States where the public conversation doesn’t really care about a book like that. People don’t get into debates and factions about a memoir published by a scholar like this. It doesn’t really register.

But in Albania, what contemporary artists, writers and poets are doing really sparks a lot of passion. But because I’m an outsider to this social world, I always feel that it’s a very dangerous field to enter. I feel cautious speaking my opinion about books and authors, because it incites such visceral reactions from people. 

Throughout the book, you emphasize that Pika pa sipërfaqe has continued its publishing activity despite persistent financial precarity. 

Yes, this element struck me immediately. Just about the fact that there’s two young friends in their 30’s who formed a publishing house, and have now created a catalog as impressive and as incredible as the list of books that has been brought into the world by Pika pa sipërfaqe, that can be found in libraries all over the world and that will continue to circulate long after we’re gone.

I imagined they must be big shots. They must have fancy apartments and travel to Paris and London and New York. But the reality of their life is very different. They’re producing this work, which I think should be valued in the same way as an internationally acclaimed publisher, but Arlind, Ataol and their families are on the level with ordinary Albanians in Tirana and they’re struggling every day. They’re making it happen without support from the state, without any of the capital that I think should be invested in what they’re doing. The value that they’re creating is immense. But they’re doing it on the absolute minimum of a budget.

Have you thought of translating the book into Albanian?

My publisher, Vanderbilt University Press, has given an enthusiastic endorsement of this idea. The acquisitions editor that I worked with for this book said that the publisher would give the rights to Pika pa sipërfaqe to translate the book into Albanian. He knows that they don’t have a big surplus of capital to invest in buying the rights for this book.

But Arlind and Ataol have a very strict code of ethics. They may consider it not appropriate for Pika pa sipërfaqe to publish the translation of a book about Pika pa sipërfaqe. So in that case, I may need to find another publishing house.


Feature image: Atdhe Mulla / K2.0.

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