Estonian bookworms crawl out of the woodwork

  • 2000-05-11
  • By Virve Vihman
At 1:00 p.m. on Easter Sunday, St. Peter's, with the largest capacity of all Tartu's churches, is packed. Latecomers are directed to the balcony pews. Have Estonians, known as a fairly secular nation, been consumed by religious fervor? Not at all. The event that has summoned the crowds is only partially religious, for this is the opening ceremony for the Estonian Year of the Book.

The scene lends credence to the notion that Estonians are more cerebral than religious, but it is no coincidence that Book Year began on Easter Sunday. The history of Estonian book printing is closely tied to religion. In the 16th and 17th centuries, 86 percent of books published were religious.

The first known Estonian book, a Lutheran volume, was printed in Germany in 1525, and it appeared in Estonian, Latvian and another language in use in Livonia at the time. The entire impression was destroyed, according to the diary of the Lübeck canon.

The oldest Estonian book partially intact today is a catechism by pastor Simon Wanradt of Tallinn's Niguliste Church and translated by pastor Johann Koell of Pühavaimu Church. The book was published in Wittenberg in 1535 with a print run of 1,500 copies. Eleven pages remain from the catechism, showing the text in Low German on one side and in Estonian on the other, with a description of Estonian dialects at the end. The Tallinn town council banned its distribution because it ran astray from Luther's catechism.

And so censorship has been around from the inception of the Estonian book.

The issue of censorship inevitably ran through many of the speeches at the opening of the Year of the Book. Vice-chairperson of the Book Year committee, professor Peeter Tulviste, spoke of the 1935 Book Year celebrations, when no one could have guessed that a mere five years later books would be burned and slashed to bits.

Writer Andres Ehin recalled an incident in 1982, when the translation of a German children's book was to appear on bookstore shelves on Christmas Eve. At the last moment, the head censor in Tallinn noticed an illustration of three angels on the very first page, and ordered all the first pages torn out and destroyed. According to Ehin, the print run was 80,000 books. "Three angels per book times 80,000 makes for a mass slaughter of the angel of books," Ehin mourned. "And Satan could be depicted without any problems."

A different side of the Soviet coin was also brought up - the accessibility of those books that did make it past the censor, and the widespread thirst for books. The average Estonian home had a very thorough library including most books that were published. Today, the functions of the Estonian home library are changing with a massive increase in the number of books published and rising prices for them.

Of course, the Internet is also a factor. Technology plays a major role in the changes taking place in the libraries of Estonia. Raiko Uri, a student at Miina Härma Gymnasium, spoke in favor of the computerization of all texts.

"Don't baptize the Year of the Book as the year of the printed book. Don't be scared that the Internet will bury the printed book - it will happen anyhow," he said. "What matters is the content, not the form."

Tulviste questioned Uri's message, saying he doubted that in the near future the Internet will become the main place people read the national epic Kalevipoeg. He believes it is more likely the Internet will take over in reference works and for scientific information, where up-to-the-minute accuracy is crucial.

President Lennart Meri spoke of the importance of books to Estonia's national identity.

"Without the birth of the Estonian book 475 years ago, Estonians might be Germans or Russians today. What a miracle that after the first book in Estonian came a second one and then a third," he said.

Estonians who wanted social standing once learned German and left the Estonian language behind in the farm. Ehin remarked that Luther's mission to publish religious texts in the language of the people began the process leading to the end of Germanification in Estonia.

Over the coming year, over 1,000 events will take place including exhibits, conferences and readings. The main exhibit, The Estonian Book 1525-2000, is open in the Tartu University History Museum, covering books up to 1944, and in Tallinn's Museum of Architecture, covering 1940 to the present (open until May 21). Events are being held around the world, in Australia, Germany, Finland, Hungary, and elsewhere. Take a breath, bibliophiles - its going to be a busy year.