Category Archives: tim parks Brought to Heel by Levi Law

Hon. Levi

While trying to research publication information on the Italian guidebook that profiled my home state, a visit to, which just opened this year, revealed the following warning:

Dear Customer,

It now seems certain that by September 1, a law on the price of books in Italian will come into effect. The main article states: “It shall be allowed that, on the sale of books to the end consumer, by whatever means or method, including mail order, even if such is brought about by electronic commerce, will have no discount to exceed 15 percent of the cover price.”  In compliance with this law, we will continue to offer great prices on our selection of millions of titles in foreign languages. Soon we will offer you the opportunity to choose from a catalog of hundreds of thousands of used books.

Please be assured that you will continue to find very low prices on Music , DVDs and Blu-ray ,Video Games , Electronics , Computers , Gardening and Garden , Home and Kitchen , shoes and bags , watches and many other categories in the future.

Thank you for your trust in Amazon and we reaffirm our commitment to continue to offer not only competitive prices and free shipping, but also the best buying experience.

The team at

PS Till August 31, we will be offering one last opportunity to purchase up your favorite books at prices never before offered. See, for the next few weeks, more than 235,000 books in Italian that we’re offering at a discount of at least 40% cover price.

The law in question is the Levi Law, named after the 52-year-old Democratic Party senator who also introduced a law to gag bloggers in 2007 (the “Levi-Prodi” law), which hasn’t passed yet. (Prodi, darling of the Anglo press for his liberalist views, gave his name to law by virtue of being Prime Minister when it was introduced.) According to Corriere della Sera, over 1000 people signed a petition against the law and sent the petition to Italian President Napolitano.

Back home, where Wal-Mart rules the roost, I miss my neighborhood book and music vendors. There is an argument for small stores and the specialization that they provide. Transactions can transcend mere consumerism and can be a learning experience and create community. Anyone who’s ever had a favorite book or record store knows this feeling. (I can cite Hawley-Cooke and ear X-tacy in Louisville and Normal’s in Baltimore as contributing heartily to my current ethos and worldview.) Italy’s small stores, when they provide this experience, are to be valued and appreciated. But at a time when Italy’s economy continues to stagnate, for the 40th-odd quarter in a row, with low growth that is the fault of too many small businesses and low international investment, this doesn’t seem like a particularly savvy move.

For whatever reason, Hon. Levi seems particularly harshly opposed to the internet as a means of facilitating communication and commerce in Italy. That he is a typical figure of the Italian left should help explain why Berlusconi has held reign for most of the past decade and a half.

But, Italy’s parliament’s slowness this time may be to the market’s advantage. As the iPhone and various tablets take over e-reading, the law may not have much effect.  Amazon has already signed an agreement with Mondadori to distribute ebooks, and Edigita, a consortium that includes RCS and Feltrinelli, will distribute 1000,000 books from 30 different publishing houses.

I wonder what Tim Parks, who spoke eloquently about the rising costs of publishing to the Foreign Press Association in Milan, might have to say about this.


The Washington Post reports that even in a weak economy, there still is a niche for small, independent booksellers:

The small, independently owned bookstore is staging a modest rebirth in the midst of a bone-killing economy and the exponential growth of online retailers and e-books.

I wish someone would tell Italian lawmakers that you can actually have Amazon and good, small bookstores too.


Update #2:

I don’t have a lot of sympathy for the closing of mega-stores like Borders. I’ll never forget being at the flagship Barnes & Noble store in Baltimore‘s Inner Harbor shopping district, watching a clerk tell a customer over and over again that Invisible Man was in the science fiction section. The customer stood his ground and said, “no, not H.G. Wells’ The Invisible Man — Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man.” Assured by his computer monitor, the clerk told the customer that that book didn’t exist.  I’m sure that up in Washington Heights, Ellison did a series of half-gainers in his grave. And you shouldn’t have to guess the races of the characters in this story.

So you want to write a book?

Getting an Italian Education

Tim Parks stands out from most expatriate writers on Italy by choosing to write about the daily realities of a life lived among regular people. Lesser writers are enchanted into irrelevance by the cultural, gastronomic and sartorial consumption opportunities afforded to them by the bel paese, but not so Parks, who divines trenchant observations on family, class and modernity from the ephemera of ordinary experience.  Given our mutual experiences in the small towns of the Veneto, I was excited to hear that he would be speaking to Milan’s foreign press organization last week.

Despite it being a paid event, Thursday’s talk was not open to the public.  I managed to make it by dint of good graces and good luck, but was ultimately disappointed for more than one reason.  Parks is noted, perhaps above all, for his work in translation, and has also written 20 works of fiction (which I mention simply because among Italian expatriates they are often overlooked in favor of his four nonfiction works about Italy).  He has also penned numerous essays for the New York Review of Books and most recently (April 11), wrote an essay for the New Yorker on the unshakeable disease of berlusconismo that seems to run through the veins of the Italian body politic.

However, Parks’ talents were somewhat constrained by having to stick to the topic of how to write a book.  In the Italian title, the verb “realizzare” was used, which is rendered equally poorly by both “write” and “publish” but perhaps that is evidence that it was not well thought out.  Parks himself seemed lukewarm on the topic, writing that afternoon on his Facebook page “So, tonight I’m speaking to the Foreign Press in Milan. They want reflections on how to organize writing and publishing a book. It should be about time for me to get some ideas together…” (Original in Italian here.)

I didn’t get the sense that members of the foreign press association had a much better appraisal of the topic.  Chatting beforehand, a resident journalist asked me, “so… are you here to learn how to write a book?” with a wry grin. Over the din of several interviews being conducted I tried to tell him that the title reminded me of Glenn Gould’s “So you want to write a fugue?

So what do we talk about when we talk about writing a book?  For all but the most starry-eyed, the advice can only center on agents, publishers, deals, fellowships, teaching opportunities and other practical considerations.

Some of these practical considerations include the problems of writing from outside one’s own culture, and Parks addressed these concerns.  It was interesting to hear from the author himself what I had read in the introduction to An Italian Education about how he had come reluctantly to write about living in Italy, and about how his manuscript for Italian Neighbors had been rejected for not being the kind of Tuscan-travel-porn that the British seem to have effortlessly passed on to a certain class of American.  (I had not known that he specifically was entreated by an editor to try and ape Peter Mayles’ A Year in Provence, which I will happy admit that I have not read.)  Parks made astute observations about knowing one’s audience, drawn from his long experience of writing from a foreign country. He also noted the creative efforts that go into a work of pure nonfiction such as his 2005 examination of the Medici’s banking system, Medici Money, and whether one needs to gather all the appropriate evidence first. (Short answer: no.)

His comments on contemporary writers also reflected his against-the-grain piece on Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom and other literature in Italian translation published in il Sole 24 Ore that same day, where he wrote that it was disheartening that Europeans anoint Franzen simply out of some vague and anxious need to understand America. (Parks asserts that Franzen, for his part, writes about America for some Americans — and with scant regard for non-Americans.) At the talk, he tied in the world’s fascination with Freedom (published in Italy this spring) with the world’s fascination with America – welcome comments on both the state of writing in English in Italy and in the world.

Parks also delved into what the implications of technology are and will be for translation, writing and teaching in the future, noting the power of the Kindle and how his students now can use its built-in dictionary application to immediately look up words.  He recalled, not without some nostalgia, the slightly obsessive and entirely necessary habit that learners of foreign languages used to have of scribbling down all unknown words in a notebook or in the margins of the work being translated.  He also praised the Kindle for allowing readers to electronically annotate their e-books’ margins. On the business end, he noted the extraordinarily low cost to a publisher of an e-book as compared to the extraordinarily high cost of an actual paper book, not to mention the associated expenses of publicist and agent that an author might be expected to pick up.

I wouldn’t have minded hearing a bit more about the increasing role of technology in the art of translation.  Web browsers already come with built-in translation features for most world languages, and their translations, although still inelegant and riddled with errors, are much more reliable than similar programs of a decade ago.  The language is often refined by online collaborators, and innovative programs for smartphones that translate text from photos and non-Latin characters are being developed.

By way of answering audience members’ questions about publishers and agents, Parks was able to heave a few shovels of scorn on an out-of-step publishing industry.  Such a remark could’ve raised the question of what value publishers add in the days of blogging and e-books.  Not every writer can expect self-publishing success like 26-year old vampire writer Amanda Hocking, but with paper publishing costs up and potential gains down as Borders exits the market and remaining mega-retailers Barnes and Noble and Wal-Mart consolidate their market positions, e-books fill more than just a technological void.  That publishers offer little more than a brand imprimatur in a world where Amazon controls distribution is obvious.  Of course how important that imprimatur really is was subtly underscored by Parks himself when he momentarily confused his own publisher, Harville Secker, an imprint of Random House, with HarperCollins.

One complaint: the event started at six.  The only reason I was able to make it was that I had made a massive amount of deadlines earlier in the week and felt like I could reward myself with one evening off.  But for most new organizations or even desk jobs, six o’clock in Italy is a bit too early.

Parks was kind enough to stick around and make small talk and hand out advice to those who wanted to hang around afterwards.  But a hard week coupled with me trying to squash my body into seats designed for much smaller people (with presumably much bigger posteriors) conspired against my original vision of me swapping notes on the rural Veneto with someone who’s written three books on the subject, and I left, offering only a wave and a thanks with my wallet ten euros lighter.  I might have better luck seeking him out in his office in IULM some day.