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Visitors spoilt for choice at Geneva Book fair

Switzerland's biggest cultural exhibition, the Geneva International Book Fair, is underway. The guests of honour at this year's Salon du Livre, as it is known, are mighty Germany and the tiny Swiss canton of Jura.

But the fair has lots more to offer. There is a major exhibition on German expressionist art, another one marking the 100th anniversary of the birth of the French writer, Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, a look at the best Swiss press photographs of 1999, an exhibition on the history of the alphabet, the art of Hebrew calligraphy, and even the science of statistics.

There are also a number of special fairs in parallel to the main event. These are devoted to contemporary art, education, multimedia and music. All are major exhibitions in their own right.

In short, there's far too much for the 120,000 visitors to see, and that's a criticism often levelled at the Salon du Livre. But Gérard Geiger, the fair's spokesman, says that the idea is that people can choose what they want to see.

"You don't have to visit everything," Geiger says. "Many people come with very specific interests. There's no one way of visiting the Salon du Livre."

"The Fair has become such a success, because it's about pleasure. We don't tell people what they should or shouldn't read, we just invite them to enjoy reading," he told swissinfo.

"The other thematic exhibitions - on education, multimedia and art - are another reason. And they allow people to find new ways of coming to books," Geiger says. "If you want to attract people, you have to encompass all their range of interests. The fair is based on the book, but it also takes in other cultural expressions."

One of the guests of honour this year is Germany, birthplace of Johannes Gutenberg, the man regarded as the father of modern printing. By inviting Germany, the fair is paying tribute to a country which is second only to China in the number of new books published annually.

Geiger says there were other factors too: "Germany is a very important country in publishing, but another reason, and perhaps the best one, is that two-thirds of Switzerland speaks German. Geneva is giving a strong signal to the rest of Switzerland that the Book Fair is for them too."

Throughout the fair there will be workshops, discussions, lectures and exhibitions devoted to various aspects of books and publishing in Germany,

The other guest of honour is Jura. Despite being Switzerland's newest canton, it has a long and varied cultural history. On display will be the canton's literary heritage, as well as its lively press, and an exhibition on its library system.

"We are a small canton, and a long way from the main towns of French-speaking Switzerland. So it's important for us to have this opportunity to show who we are and how rich our culture is," says Michel Hauser, head of Jura's culture and heritage department.

He says the canton is also proud of it francophone heritage: "French is one of the defining factors of our canton. It was what was at the root of our problems with canton Berne, and what led to us becoming a canton."

The Salon du Livre has become much more than just another book fair. It embraces a wide variety of other cultural expressions. A great deal of money also changes hands during the fair. But the aim is to popularise the book.

"It would be dishonest to say the fair didn't have a commercial side," says Geiger. "People come to see books, but also to buy books. When people leave the fair, they often have bags full of books in both hands."

"But we also have a strong position defending the book. We are driven by a strong belief that the book is central to our society," he says.

The Geneva International Book Fair, at the city's Palexpo exhibition centre, runs until May 7.

by Roy Probert

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