The Daily Heller: Uruguay’s Annual Day for Books

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National Book Day in Uruguay is celebrated every year on May 26, a tradition that has been ongoing since 1940. The day commemorates the anniversary of the National Library of Uruguay, the country’s first public library, which was founded in 1816. The library was established by Bishop Dámaso Antonio Larrañaga, who donated his personal library at a time when education was overseen by the church.

On the morning of May 26, citizens across the country were surprised by thousands of books that had been left in public spaces across the country. This campaign, designed by Amijai Benderski, is aimed at giving books new life, facilitating their encounter with readers of all ages. In the wake of book-banning here and abroad, I wanted to hear from Benderski about this celebration of the written word.

What is the rationale or meaning behind your design scheme for National Book Day?
The central image of a bird, a book and a human being creates a multilayered symbolism that speaks to the essence of what it means to engage with literature.

The bird in the design is traditionally seen as a symbol of freedom and perspective. In the context of reading, this could be interpreted as the freedom of thought and the broadening of perspective that books often provide. It also implies the transformative power of books, as birds can take to the skies, symbolizing the idea of ascending to higher levels of understanding or consciousness.

The book is a straightforward representation of the subject of the event. However, in combination with the bird and human figure, it serves to emphasize the intimate connection between literature and the individual, as well as the boundless potential for growth and enlightenment that books can bring.

A human head is a universal symbol of self and identity. It also avoids gender, age or any other representation. Its inclusion in the design underscores the personal aspect of reading and the profound influence that literature can have on an individual’s personal development.

These elements convey a visually powerful message about the transformative potential of reading. They beautifully encapsulate the idea that engaging with literature can elevate our understanding, broaden our horizons, and profoundly affect our personal identity.

The choice of handmade lettering is also notable. In an era of digital dominance, this aspect of the design brings a touch of warmth and authenticity. It adds a personal, human element that resonates with the tactile experience of reading a physical book. This could be seen as a subtle critique of the impersonal nature of digital reading, as well as a call to reconnect with the tangible, intimate experience of reading a book.

In the context of an event like National Book Day, the vibrant and varied color palette reflects the diversity of literature, with each color representing different genres or themes. The richness of colors symbolizes the breadth of ideas, stories and experiences that books offer.

Despite the recurring use of the bird motif in previous designs, the decision to maintain this symbolism can be seen as a respectful nod to tradition while simultaneously pushing the boundaries of creativity and innovation. The integration of the bird, a book and a human figure into a single symbol in this year’s design creates a fresh interpretation of the bird motif, thereby rejuvenating its meaning and impact.

The decision to stick with the bird symbolism was based on:

Consistency: The bird has become an identifiable symbol associated with National Book Day, creating a sense of continuity and consistency across different iterations of the event. This aids in brand recognition and event awareness among the audience.

Evolution, Not Revolution: The innovative rendition of the bird symbol demonstrates the idea of evolution, rather than revolution. The design doesn’t abandon the existing paradigm, instead, it evolves it into a more inclusive and comprehensive symbol, illustrating the interconnection between humans, books and the broader ideas they represent.

Relevance and Resonance: The new symbol continues to resonate with the audience due to its associations. By juxtaposing a bird with a human figure and a book, the design emphasizes the empowering nature of knowledge and the freedom it provides, which aligns with the ethos of National Book Day.

Is the book industry flourishing in Uruguay?
There are several positive trends in the Uruguayan book industry, despite some of the challenges it’s facing. One clear sign of positive growth is in the production of books, which saw a sharp increase in 2021. This increase suggests that local publishers and authors are still investing in creating new content, demonstrating the vitality of the creative and intellectual culture in Uruguay​.

The number of books and similar printed matter being exported from Uruguay increased by more than 100% in the past years. The surge in exports indicates that Uruguayan books are finding an audience abroad, which is a testament to the quality and global appeal of the country’s literature​​.

In terms of imports, there was also a 30% increase. This indicates a sustained demand for international literature in Uruguay, which reflects a healthy interest in reading and a thirst for diverse perspectives among the Uruguayan population​​.

So while the book industry in Uruguay has faced some headwinds, there are encouraging signs of resilience and potential for growth. The recent increases in production, exports and imports suggest a continued commitment to literature and reading in Uruguay, both from the creators of books and their readers. 

We are experiencing a rise of independent book publishers, much like in other parts of the world, which can be attributed to a number of factors. It’s important to consider the rich literary tradition in Uruguay. The country boasts a vibrant intellectual culture with a history of esteemed writers and thinkers. This strong cultural heritage creates a fertile ground for independent publishing, as there is a continuous influx of new authors and ideas needing platforms for expression.

Independent publishers often have the freedom to take more risks than larger, more established publishing houses. They can choose to publish works that are experimental, niche or that tackle challenging subjects, thereby filling gaps in the market and catering to readers seeking alternatives to mainstream offerings.

There’s a certain appeal to the ethos of independent publishing, which often values artistic integrity, local relevance and direct engagement with readers over commercial success. In today’s globalized world, many readers are drawn to the unique, authentic voices that independent publishers tend to champion. 

And last but not least, the Uruguayan reader is characterized by his love for the book as an object, something that he cannot feel through an ebook. It must be taken into account that Uruguayans tend to be nostalgic, and this is great for the industry.

You’ve had a history of well-designed covers and jackets. Is this still an important factor in selling and reading?
I would like to emphasize the importance of book cover design as an essential tool in the process of selling a book. It’s often said that we shouldn’t judge a book by its cover, but the reality is that we often do, especially when confronted with an array of choices, such as in a gas station or a bookstore. The book cover serves as a visual synopsis of the book, a form of communication between the author (or the publisher) and the potential reader. It’s the first thing that catches our eye and invites us to explore further.