The Paris Bookshop

10 February, 2014

I just returned from Paris (vacation!).  One of the joys of my trip, while wandering around neighborhoods, was to visit bookstores.  While I can’t comment on the overall health of publishing in France, some observations:

*There seem to be bookstores everywhere.  Small bookstores, large bookstores, neighborhood bookstores, chain bookstores, specialized bookstores.  It appears at least based on my informal survey that reading the physical book is alive and well in this culturally sophiindexsticated capital.  The French have a flair for fashion and display, and this is evident in the way the attractive bookstore windows.

*The French love translation, especially from English.  So many well known American and English authors are in evidence.  What fun to see the beautiful editions of Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch, the works of Julian Barnes, Ian McEwan and so many others.

*What a serious people!  At the Flammarion bookshop opposite the charming church of St. Germain de Pres, the philosophy section was packed with fascinating, I mean incredibly serious titles.  Similarly, psychology got a lot of play. How skimpy the comparable sections at Barnes & Noble appear. This is a culture of ideas where philosophical debate is a cafe sport.

*Fiction about relationships abounds. Menage a trois. Sexual experimentation. Perversions.  In this land that spawned the Marquis de Sade, Colette, and Francoise Sagan, where scandal abounds at the highest levels of government, the appetite for w#3orks of literature that explore the nature and boundaries of love and lust are evident everywhere.

*A healthy love of detective fiction.  The mysteries and thriller sections reflect a truly international interest, with titles from so many cultures, including Asian and Scandinavian writers, and of course, many well known American and British authors.

*The trade paperback and livre de poche is alive and well.  The French (like many of their other European compatriots) have long published books in trade paperback editions, many of them without cover art, but somehow incredibly elegant and alluring in their simplicity.  By contrast, the livre de poche (what we call mass market paperbacks) usually sports colorful, commercial art, but unlike most of our rack-size paperbacks, the type is actually readable.

For whatever reason, there has always been much more interest in France in American authors, than the reverse.  Americans, who generally are not well schooled in languages, and certainly not in French, are not interested in French authors or the subjects that arouse passion in the French.  I’m sure we are missing out.

You might want to consider, the next time you are abroad, spending time in bookstores, not just visiting the sites.  It is somehow both curious and invigorating, regardless of whether you understand the language.

–Joelle Delbourgo