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Book Browsing in Paris

abstract:I enjoy getting the Economist City Guides  in my email box and wanted to pass along a terrific book browsing tip for Paris. On the Left Bank, between the Quai d'Orsay and the Íle de la Cité  are antiquarian booksellers or bouquinistes—second hand book stores; what could be more romantic than walking along the Seine, reading French existentialists at an outdoor café while sipping hot thé, or better yet, a snifter of warm Congnac. 


January 10, 2005
— Additionally there are English/French book stores in the 1st arrondisement of the city's Right Bank at W.H. Smith (248 rue de Rivoli) and nearby Galignani (224 rue de Rivoli)

Galignani is a 200-year-old landmark, once publisher of the first English language newspaper in Paris as well as a book publisher and reading room since the end of the 19th century.  It is still in the family hands at the same address since 1845. Phone: 33(0)1 42 60 76 07 Open 10-19:00 Closed Sundays.

Shakespeare and Company has the familiar Stratford Upon Avon air about it, that is in fact "upon Seine". Opened in 1917 by Sylvia Beach who published Ulysses and other banned books from England such as Lady Chatterley's Lover it was also the favorite bookshop of James Joyce, Gertrude Stein, Hemingway, T.S. Eliot, Ezra Pound, Samuel Beckett (if nothing else Sylvia rerouted their mail for them when they traveled) and remains the favorite of many American and English writers living in Paris. 37 rue de la Bucherie, Paris 5th Phone: 33(0)1 43 26 96 50 Open mid-day to midnight.

Having book-browsed many parts of the world, it is interesting to reflect on elements contributing to the cultural distinction of a country and the resulting body of literature written in their mother tongue.  What principle factors would you say shape society and create a national zeitgeist?

Certainly the history of its people: patterns of immigration/migration, imperialism and colonialism, changing economies, the experience of war--its leaders, victories and defeats. 

But one could argue equally that each country's writers and thinkers just as prominently shape a nation's identity; the souls of the people are distilled and reflected in stories that  subtley influence opinion, if not sculpt whole bodies of thought—all uniquely described in the mother tongue. 

Translators and people who read translated works of literature know that it is often difficult to convey precisely a word or phrase in another language which was so fluidly conveyed in the first. Some thoughts or experiences just do not translate.

So while fundamental experiences are universal: love, hate, fear, guilt, pride, honor—reading foreign literature is a window to the soul of the nation. The following books sample French philosophic, cultural, historical and political influences.

A Few French Classics & Best Sellers

The Stranger, Albert Camus; In 2000 this book won a survey of 6000 French readers for the best book of the 20th century. The opening line is: "Augjord'hui, manan est morte. Ou peut-etre, je ne sais pas." (Mother died today. Or maybe yesterday, I don't know.")

La Dame aux Camelias, Alexandre Dumas; The Oxford World's Classics edition in 1986 is notable for its introduction by David Coward who writes that Marie Duplessis (Marguerite) was Dumas' mistress for eleven months before she met and fell in love with Liszt. Although Liszt was the only man Marie ever loved this did not stop Dumas from describing her as "...the absolute incarnation of Woman who has ever existed." She was the inspiration for the heroine of Verdi's La Traviata. Born Alphonsine Plessis in 1824 her father began offering her to men by the age of 12 and by 16 she was the most celebrated cortesan of her day.  A "four hankie" book that falls into G.K. Chesterson's category of "good bad books".

Swann's Way, Marcel Proust; whose stream-of-concsiousness style and celebration of things past brought more than just the madeleine to fame. His extrordinary charm and intelligence gained him access to the most sought-after salons in Paris during the French belle epoché, to which this book captures the contrast between the fated bourgeoisie and working class in the period exquisitely.

The Last Life, Claire Messud: Harcourt Press. The 15-year-old protagonist narrates her French-Algerian family's search for identity while moving around the world (Algeria, France, US). The historical context, particularly about the war in Algeria, is vivid and accurate, while the writing style is lyrical and just plain enjoyable to read. "Messud skillfully and inexorably describes how the stories we tell ourselves, and the lies to which we cling, can turn on us in a moment. It is a work of stunning power from a writer to watch." Product Editorial Review

The Fly-Truffler, Gustaf Sobin, Norton & Co. Approaching 50, the hero of The Fly-Truffler is a linguistics professor who lives in a Provençal farmhouse, the ancestral home for eight generations, selling off a parcel of land each year in order to make ends meet. Every sale is a kind of small betrayal, for Cabassac's roots in the  landscape run deep. According to local custom, he goes "truffling every winter, gathering wild asparagus in the spring, flowering medicinal herbs each summer, and a plethora of pale, speckled mushrooms each fall." Since the death of his young wife, Julieta, the truffles have come to represent something far more than a delicacy for Cabassac's palate: they trigger an evocative sequence of dream visions in which he and his lost wife enter a state of intimate and prolonged communion. The Fly- Truffler is a love story and a rich cultural tour-de-force. Reading group guide included in the paperback edition.

L'Attente de Paris, Roland Michel Tremblay: Waiting for Paris is the fictionalized traditional version of Underground.  The novel isin the third person singular and is about a young man in love with two women.  Between Ottawa, Paris and New York, he has to make choices and attempt to realize his dreams.

Please write us with your book browsing adventures and literary finds at home or where you travel.  Your story may be chosen for publiction on BookBuffet. with the subject title: My Book Browsing Experience!

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