Lithuania’s ‘Day of the Book Smugglers’ Comes to the UK Ahead of London Book Fair

In News by Porter Anderson

Taking to the streets on Lithuania’s annual ‘Day of the Book Smugglers,’ a team of fashionable book runners delivered Lithuanian writings to agents’ offices, publishing houses, and media newsrooms ahead of the London Book Fair.

London Book Fair’s team of ‘book smugglers’ at the Free Word Center prior to setting out across the city. Image: LBF, Deivaras

By Porter Anderson, Editor-in-Chief | @Porter_Anderson

Lithuania: 100 Years Since Restoration

T today (March 16), the Lithuanian Culture Institute sent modern-day “book smugglers” fanning out across London to deliver bags of Lithuanian writings to key cultural offices—in advance of the London Book Fair’s Market Focus, April 10-12, on the Baltic book markets of Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia.

Lithuanian designer Juozas Statkevicius in his 2017 S/S couture collection inspired the notably fashionable look of the participants, who turned heads as they made their way from the Free Word Centre in Clerkenwell to a list of target locations—heavy on literary agents’ offices.

Their stops included Amazon Publishing’s headquarters in the British capital, Aitken Alexander Associates, the BBC, The Big Green Bookshop, DHH Literary Agency, Janklow and Nesbit, Libreria, The Monocle, Picador, The Poetry Society, Southbank Centre, The Sunday Times, and Writers’ Centre Norwich.

Handily, the books toted in the bags arrived at each destination with rights information on Lithuanian titles coming to the fair and on titles being published in the UK this year.

The swanky smugglers opened the day with author Kristina Sabaliauskaitė, who has lived in London since 2002. Born in Vilnius and known for her Silva Rerum four-part historical novel series, Sabaliauskaitė is one of the Baltics’ trio of writers who will be specially honored in London Book Fair’s Author of the Day program, as we’ve reported earlier.

A London Book Fair ‘book smuggler’ with bags of books for delivery to agents, publishers, and news media. collection. Image: LBF, Deivaras

Under Oppression: The ‘King of Knygnešiai’

Jurgis Bielinis. Image: Public Domain

The day is a recognition accredited by UNESCO for its cultural distinction: book smuggling is recalled annually in Vilnius on the birth date of Jurgis Bielinis, who was known as “the king of knygnešiai,” the book smugglers who spirited banned books into Lithuania as part of the resistance to Russian hegemony.

Bielinis, 1846-1918, is an early champion of the freedom to publish, a journalist who lived with a bounty on his head for much of his career in contraband. He was a key organizer of the resistance to Russian oppression, part of an underground network of as many as 3,000 Lithuanians, during Moscow’s crushing press ban of 1865 to 1904, the period of the American Civil War and the formation of modern Italy.

It’s said that the smugglers moved as many as 5 million forbidden books into Lithuania, establishing patterns of subterfuge said to have been revived between 1940 and 1990 in resistance to the Soviet occupation.

The ban outlawed all Lithuanian language publications printed in the Latin alphabet within the Russian empire in an effort at “russification,” allowing only work printed in Cyrillic. A proponent of an independent Lithuania, Bielinis is said to have died without seeing the Vilnius Conference that would declare the principles of  sovereignty for the nation. The country this year celebrates a century since that Restoration of the State, as it’s known, as a standalone nation.

Today, special guests at the UK’s promotional event included London Book Fair director Jacks Thomas; Lithuanian Embassy cultural attaché Justė Kostikovaitė; the Lithuanian Culture Institute’s director Aušrinė Žilinskienė, and journalist Rosie Goldsmith.

London Book Fair ‘book smugglers’ on their way to make deliveries. Image: LBF, Deivaras

Lithuanian Titles in English: Coming to the UK in 2018
  • Magnetic North: Conversations with Tomas Venclova by Ellen Hinsey and Tomas Venclova (Boydell & Brewer, January 2018)
  • Darkness and Company by Sigitas Parulskis (Peter Owen Publishers, April 2018)
  • White Shroud by Antanas Škėma (Vagabond Voices, February 2018)
  • Memoirs of a Life Cut Short by Ričardas Gavelis (Vagabond Voices, March 2018)
  • Shadows on the Tundra by Dalia Grinkevičiūtė (Peirene Press, June 2018)
  • In the Shadow of Wolves by Alvydas Šlepikas (Oneworld, March 2019)
  • New Baltic Poetry ed. Jayde Will (Parthian Books, March 2018)
  • The Moon is a Pill by Aušra Kaziliūnaitė, poetry collection (Parthian Books, March 2018)
  • Now I Understand by Marius Burokas, poetry collection (Parthian Books, March 2018)
  • Then What by Gintaras Grajauskas, poetry collection (Bloodaxe Books, April 2018)
  • The Fox on the Swing by Evelina Daciūtė, illustrated by Aušra Kiudulaitė (Thames & Hudson, March 2018)
  • The Music Teacher by Renata Šerelytė (Noir Press, January 2018)
  • The Easiest by Rasa Aškinytė (Noir Press, January 2018)
  • The Last Day by Jaroslavas Melnikas (Noir Press, June 2018)
  • Shtetl Love Song by Grigory Kanovich (Noir Press, October 2017)

More from Publishing Perspectives on London Book Fair is here. And here’s a video from designer Juozas Statkevicius’ 2017 collection show, which inspired the London Day of the Book Smugglers’ outfits. For more on Statkevicius’ work, his site is here.

About the Author

Porter Anderson

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Porter Anderson is Editor-in-Chief of Publishing Perspectives. He is also co-owner and editor with Jane Friedman of The Hot Sheet, the newsletter for trade and indie authors. He formerly was Associate Editor for The FutureBook, at London's The Bookseller. Anderson has also worked with CNN International, CNN.com, CNN USA, the Village Voice, the Dallas Times Herald, and other media.