Prague, writ large. Will UNESCO take note?

Czech Position

The Prague Municipal Library will apply to UNESCO for the title ‘City of Literature’ this autumn; meanwhile, it’s getting the word out

Edinburgh has Robert Louis Stevenson. Dublin has James Joyce. London and Paris have too many to name. A city’s writers or authors who have used its streets as inspiration has always given a city a sense of mystique. Prague’s literary history is no less grand, and a group of like-minded people have banded together to bring Prague tales to the street. Both literally and figuratively.

“Prague is living with literature, in libraries, festivals, special events, cafes,” Lenka Hanzlíková, spokesperson for the Prague Municipal Library who is coordinating Praha, mesto literatury (Prague, City of Literature), told Czech Position. “Prague has been an inspiration for authors, books from around the world have been written here.”

At a conference in 2009 organized by the local Czech Center, a representative from Edinburgh spoke about how their city had been named the first UNESCO City of Literature. Hanzlíková said conference attendees included people from the Municipal Library, National Library and other such organizations, and they decided they wanted this title for Prague as well. The Municipal Library put together the documents, and Prague City Hall agreed to finance the campaign.

The UNESCO City of Literature title has currently been bestowed on five cities: Edinburgh, Melbourne, Iowa City, Dublin and Reykjavik. To qualify, a city must have an “urban environment in which literature, drama and/or poetry play an integral role;” “experience hosting literary events and festivals aiming at promoting domestic and foreign literature” and “active involvement of media, including new media, in promoting literature and strengthening the market for literary products.”

Text in situ

Prague, City of Literature had a quick preview in August when posters featuring text from books by Jáchym Topol (“City Sister Silver”), Karel Capek (“Rossum’s Universal Robots”), Jaroslav Hašek (“The Good Soldier Švejk”), Miloš Urban (“The Seven Churchs”), Ivan Klíma (“The Premier and the Angel”) and many more were spied around the city.

Already online is a map of the city, featuring literary highlights around Prague (Franz Kafka being the city’s most famous native son of all; Bohumil Hrabal (“Closely Observed Trains”) and Milan Kundera (“The Unbearable Lightness of Being”) were born in Brno; the latter has long made Paris his home).

The bulk of the campaign kicks off September 26 and there will be a total of four events, each running anywhere from one to three weeks. The first will see literature literally on the streets, with text from books and poems painted on the streets. Hanzlíková said the words will have some meaning for the particular place in which they are seen. Audio is the theme of campaign number two. “There will be speakers around town, broadcasting audio books,” she said.

Participation encouraged

The city’s statues become actors in this production; organizers will be placing books into open stone hands, showing that truly everyone in Prague loves to read. While books and reading could be considered old-fashioned in this well-connected, online, instant access world; organizers have put a strong emphasis on demonstrating that you can interact with stories, too.

Hanzlíková said that all activities will be documented in photos and video, which will be uploaded to their website, on YouTube and posted on a special Facebook page. “We want reactions from the public,” she said. “We want to have a lot of public interaction and participation.”

The fourth campaign though is when everyday Praguers get to showoff their own literary chops. “This one is on Facebook,” Hanzlíková said. “People can write poems on our Facebook page, and the most popular one will be broadcast on an electronic billboard everyday.” Finally, the chance to get your work in lights.

Even through the main elements of the campaign will end in December, Hanzlíková hopes the literary love will continue. “Next year, our plans include expanding the website, producing an anthology of living Prague authors, complete with extracts of their work as well as developing the online map and printing it,” she said.

Her goal for the map is that it will include different projects, highlight authors, literary cafes and institutions. “We want the website to be a place for people to go to discover what is new with literature in Prague,” she added.

The library will apply to UNESCO for the title, City of Literature this autumn, and should find out if they were awarded in the spring.

“It’s a very prestigious title, and we hope UNESCO will agree Prague is a city of literature,” Hanzlíková said. “We don’t want to say though that the title is the main goal of this campaign; we want Prague inhabitants and visitors to known that the city is full of literature, to hear it, see it.”