When I left for Paris I got 4 different messages from friends and family all with the same still from Disney’s Beauty and the Beast included. You know, this one, where Belle is swinging her way into a French library on a ladder, singing and on the prowl for new books.
Somewhat fitting, I’ll admit
It turns out that this is a fair representation of my time so far in Paris. You have to understand, Belle may not be my favorite Disney princess (for one thing, she stole my name. For another, Esmeralda has more grit), but I have always loved books more than anything. I’ve been known to walk around reading books, take baths reading books, ride a bike and rollerblade reading books. I can recite most of PG Wodehouse for you if you ask nicely enough, and have been known to cuddle with books at night as opposed to stuffed animals. They’ve always been a huge part of my life, but books have also always been an escape. They’ve gotten me through two divorces, multiple hurricanes, countless long car rides and chemistry classes and so many other moments I’ve been desperate to leave. So in a way, it surprised me that I found myself missing, even craving, books to read in Paris, the city of my dream escape. I just never expected to need them here, in a city where I planned on never wanting to miss a single view or night out. Turns out though, not only did I miss them, but Paris felt lonely as all get out without them.
Luckily, Paris may be the best city in the world to find books. This is a city that will not let you forget its literary tradition, which is only fair, since it’s a city made for reading, writing, and generally contemplating existence. Living among this much art and history will do that you, I figure. No matter where you go, some of the greatest authors in the world have left their footprints ahead of you. Not only have they written or smoked or drank endless cups of coffee in the same cafés and gardens that you are in, but their books are everywhere and available often for as little as 20 centimes, or about 40 cents. Paris is a city full of oddly specific bookshops, with specialties that range from collectible editions of TinTin to a selection of translations of F. Scott Fitzgerald to the Librairie Théâtrale right next door to my apartment, which offers an entire shelf of secondhand copies of Roméo et Juliette. Speaking of which, secondhand books are also widely and readily available here, not only from the green bouquiniste stands that line the Seine, but also in giant heaps outside every book store. Even the monolithic Gilbert, captain of literary industry (whose 7 or so locations can be found lining the streets opposite Nôtre Dame all the way to the Jardin de Luxembourg) puts endless copies of used books (à occasion or petit prix, as they’re called) alongside the new copies, meaning that my 11 schoolbooks for this semester cost me under 20 euros. These 11 books are in addition to the giant stack of books lent to me by my host mother, who has an extensive library herself and who, upon gauging my feminist leanings as appropriately radical, promptly bestowed upon me George Eliot, Virginia Woolf, Virginie Despentes, and letters from Calamity Jane, with the promise that we would discuss each in detail.
This is all to say that, for those of who you have seen the movie, Woody Allen’s “Midnight In Paris” might actually be onto something. It feels like the authors who have lived here, whether they were born here or traveled here or were exiled here, have each left a little bit of breath, a pencil stub or signature, somewhere in this city, as well as all of their books. And it turns out that that’s how Paris has opened its gates for me. For now, not only is Paris home to Hemingway’s favorite bar, Sartre’s old classroom, Victor Hugo’s birthplace, Gertrude Stein’s grave, but it is also home to one small girl sitting by the Seine, reading from these people’s books, and finding that she might have found a place where she absolutely belongs after all.
Paris, in a nutshell (at an event at the Theater Library next door)
Inside Shakespeare and Co. bookstore, where pictures are technically not allowed, so this is an exclusive.
Père Lachaise Cemetery, where authors such as Oscar Wilde, Gertrude Stein, and Molière are buried.
The author and friend, right before kissing the grave of Oscar Wilde in Père Lachaise.
The library inside the Hôtel de Ville, one of the many libraries visited so far.
Reading in Place des Vosges, a park in Le Marais, the same district as Victor Hugo’s birthplace.
View of the Left Bank from my favorite place to read by the Seine.