A Bibliophile’s Visit to Paris

I just returned from a long weekend in Paris, and it was the first time I’d spent any time in the city in over a decade. As we strolled, sipped, and simply bathed in the glory of the city, I was moved to recall that old epigram by French critic Jean-Baptiste Alphonse Karr: plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose, or, the more things change, the more things stay the same. I think this applies especially to Parisian book culture. The famous bouquinistes, or open-air antiquarian booksellers, still manned their hunter-green stalls along the river quayside, offering passersby the pleasure of searching for literary treasure while simultaneously taking in the city sights. While I knew that this tradition had existed in Paris since the 1500s, I didn’t realize just how many bookstalls comprise this UNESCO World Heritage Site. In fact, over 200 booksellers operate 900 book boxes, stretching from the Pont Marie on the Left Bank to the Quai Voltaire on the Right Bank, and is touted on postcards printed by the Mairie de Paris as ‘the largest open-air bookstore in the world.’

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A “bouquiniste” by the Seine, in Paris, France (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

After browsing the stalls, I hopped on the Métro, taking the lightning-fast Line 14 to visit my old stomping grounds, the ever-evolving Tolbiac section of the 13th arrondissement. In addition to a bustling Chinatown, this neighborhood is famous for hosting the large towers of the Bibliotheque Nationale de France. Fourteen years ago, the only things piercing the skyline here were the four glass-and steel towers of the library, and visitors unfamiliar to the area were few and far between. (For a detailed picture of the highly ambitious, intensely controversial construction of the new facility, look no further than the last chapter of Nick Basbanes’ Patience & Fortitude, where the library’s architect calls the Tolbiac site “a stretch of industrial wasteland on the banks of the Seine.”)


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By savagecat [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons


Well, things do change. The area is now home to urban hipsters, boutiques, movie theaters, eco-friendly condos and floating bars. The piscine Josephine Baker, the first pool to be built in Paris since 1992 was opened across from the Bibliotheque. Best described as a pool-barge, the Josephine Baker’s glass windows look directly onto the Seine, and get swimmers as close to taking a plunge in the river without chancing their health. On sunny days, the roof retracts, and sunbathers can gaze out onto the Seine, or admire their literary patrimony soaring into the sky beside them.


So what did I bring home? A novel by Francophone writer and UCLA professor Alain Mabanckou, and another biting satire by Michel Houellebecq, who, rumor has it, also calls the 13th his home. Vive Paris!


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