The Adelphi Project .

The Adelphi Project is Eva K. Barbarossa’s mad plan to… well, as she puts it, “Why I am reading 653 books to follow the path of an Italian publishing house.” As someone pursuing his own mad plan of reading as much as possible of Russian literature in Russian, I heartily approve, and I am pleased to learn about this remarkable publisher:

The Adelphi Edizioni was started in 1962, with the first of Biblioteca Adelphi series published in 1965. These books come from an amazing array of genres including literature, philosophy, science, poetry, science fiction, religious texts, travel literature and mysteries. In 1965 Biblioteca Adelphi’s first release was The Other Side, by an Austrian author, Alfred Kubin. A strange sci-fi novel, at once dystopian and utopian, it is an interesting stake for the first of the ‘good’ and ‘singular’ books. From there 1965 rounds out with three authors: Edmund Gosse (British biography), Jan Potocki (a Polish Count who wrote a surrealist Spanish adventure story, in French) and Antonin Artaud (French diary of a mystical drug trip in Mexico). It is a curious start and it gets even more curious from there.

Calasso discusses the philosophy behind the house in his short collection of essays, The Art of the Publisher, the ideals of Bazlen and Foà and Olivetti, the founders. It was this book that spurred me to ask what I would learn, what it would be like, to go back to the beginning of Adelphi and read all the books in order. One night, I stayed up late and translated the catalog. I pulled all the records in Italian, and added two additional languages: English, and the original language the book was written in. The next day I began haunting the used book stores of New York City to find the books I needed. And thus began The Adelphi Project.

I began to read the books in order and quickly realized I needed additional context. I needed to understand the context of each book — when and where it was written, why, what could have been the ‘singular’ experience that inspired its creation; I needed to understand the history of Italy and how these books were published when they were, starting in the 1960s, a time of upheaval, the country barely 100 years old. I needed the histories of the authors, the places where the books were written, the time periods, the friendships, and the connections.; and I needed to better understand Calasso himself. In order to understand Calasso, I needed to go back to the classic Vedic texts, the Rigveda, and Sanskrit, a language that creates a shape for the languages that follow.

I’m not sure what she means by “a language that creates a shape for the languages that follow,” but who cares? It’s a grand idea, and I wish her the very best with it. (Via MetaFilter, where the first comment, by misteraitch, says: “The Adelphi volumes are so appealing: I always loved the look of them and bought a few during my couple of years in Italy, even though my Italian was never up to the job of actually reading them.”)


  1. a language that creates a shape for the languages that follow

    Would this be referring to the role of “Classical languages” in creating a kind of mould for the languages, literatures and cultures that would later take them as a model? After all, Greek and Latin provide a touchstone for traditional grammatical analysis until the present day. Pāṇini presumably played a similar role in Indian tradition. As Wikipedia says of the Aṣṭādhyāyī, “Regarded as extremely compact without sacrificing completeness, it would become the model for later specialist technical texts or sutras.”

  2. Ah, yes, you must be right. Thanks for explaining, and for commenting on this lonely post!

  3. eva barbarossa says:

    A friend sent me a post from you this morning, and I fell deeply into reading through your blog. We have similar reading patterns, I’ve taken to gifting The Ghost of Birds to anyone who will stand still long enough to accept it. It was interesting to find this, which I hadn’t noticed at the time.

    The Russians, so far, are the most difficult part of the adelphi project. I am certain, regardless of what language I read them in, in translation, that I am missing something, if not everything.

  4. I’m delighted you found the post and the blog! And yes, The Ghost of Birds is wonderful; I keep reading bits from it to my patient wife. I’d encourage you to learn Russian if you want another mad project after this one…

  5. marie-lucie says:

    The publisher and the prolific reader both sound great! I understand that the books are in Italian translation. A good way to improve one’s reading knowledge of a language is to read a translation of a work we already know. I have not tried this with Italian but the Adelphi collection sounds like a good place to begin.

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