The Frankfurt Book Fair opened its doors for live, in-person events for the first time since 2019 this week, starting with an opening press conference, which featured fair director Juergen Boos, chairwoman of the German Publishers and Booksellers Association Karin Schmidt-Friderichs, German journalist Muthu Sanyal, and Russian author Dimitry Glukhovsky. It was stated several times that while the fair was back to business, not everything was back to normal.

“The publishing industry has gone through one of the biggest stress tests…but one thing was missing, meeting in person,” said Schmidt-Fridericks, who commented on how the public turned to reading as a form of recreation during the pandemic. “Social distancing did not mean a distance from the book….books provide answers to urgent questions. Books allow us to leave reality for a moment. They provide hope and courage,” she said, adding “The last year has opened our eyes, and posed the question: 'Are we willing to change our way of life?' From diversity to climate change to public discourse. Books help us look at these issues.”

A key theme running through this year’s fair will be the question of “how do we want to live our lives?” and touch on topics including justice, sustainability, diversity, living and working, education and digitization. This will be addressed in some 75 events with authors, ranging from Jenny Erpenbeck and Julia Franck from Germany, to Hallgrimur Helgasson from Iceland and Helen Macdonald from the U.K. European cultural television channel ARTE will be filming the discussions and will broadcast a documentary of the events on October 21.

Speaking as part of the press conference, Glukhovsky, a bestselling author of dystopian thrillers, noted the need to fight the ongoing curtailing of freedom of speech around the world, something that became even more acute during the pandemic. “Freedom is a term we have to maintain and defend, even in difficult times like these. I come from Russia, I wanted to say that ‘freedom’ is something that needs to stay,” Glukhovsky said.

For his part, Boos encouraged people to make the most of the opportunity for dialog. "In order to make a profound contribution, we must do one important thing - listen to each other," Boos said.

Tuesday also saw the opening ceremony of the fair, which again featured Schmidt-Fridericks and Boos, as well as Prov. Monika Grütters, German minister of state and culture commissioner. Also on hand were several authors from Canada, this year’s guest of honor, including novelist Margaret Atwood, poet Josephine Bacon, and multidisciplinary artist Vivek Shraya.

Shraya, spoke about identity and “how we want to live today,” and about the need to be tolerant of and forgive oneself for our imperfections. “What if we were to alleviate the pressure of aspiring to be our ideal selves -- or using our inability to become our ideal selves as a way to berate ourselves -- and instead focus on creating ideal experiences each day? I want to imagine a world in which we can change, shift, and play as often as we choose, and where this multiplicity is honored instead of viewed with suspicion. I want to wake up in the morning and ask myself not [What do I have to do today?’ but rather ‘Who do I want to be today?’ This is how I want to live.”

Atwood spoke directly about last year’s cancellation of the fair, which delayed Canada’s Guest of Honor program to this year.

“It’s a great honor to be addressing you on this occasion,” she said, “I thought I’d be doing it last year, but then came Covid-19. We all feel like those people in fairy tales who go to sleep in the forest and wake up a hundred years later. Just the other day, I was in Frankfurt with you, celebrating the Friedenspreis, and enjoying Cosplay Day. Who was that tall woman in blue, with reindeer horns on her head?”

She continued, “But right now it’s Canada’s Frankfurt year. What amazing things Canada once had planned for you! Tap-dancing polar bears, a fountain of maple syrup cascading from an ice sculpture shaped like a Rocky Mountain, a chorus of beavers with skates and hockey sticks ... but then Covid struck, and these plans evaporated. I myself was intending to cover myself in moss and impersonate the Arctic tundra, but I had to give that up.”

Underscoring the many challenges the world is facing, Atwood referred to this year’s theme of “re:connect”: “All of us, I hope, will reconnect with the delicately balanced biosphere –within which we live and breathe. Covid and the climate crisis have shown us how fragile we are, as human beings. But we’ve been demonstrating how resilient, how inventive, and how creative we can be, as well.”