Reading Paris

“There is never any ending to Paris and the memory of each person who has lived in it differs from that of any other. We always returned to it no matter who we were nor how it was changed nor with what difficulties nor what ease it could be reached. It was always worth it and we received a return for whatever we brought to it.”
A Moveable Feast, Hemingway


When faced with the unfathomable, we look to great writers to articulate how we feel and what we should do. We ask—we expect—them to carry the weight and to lighten it into something beautiful that transforms an event through a new understanding. A seemingly impossible task that writers surprise us by doing over and over and over. Great literature remains borderless, ageless.

The French are great readers—bien sûr—and great writers, with fifteen Nobel laureates beneath the Tricolore. Bookshops and libraries dot the streets of Paris. Notice the sea of readers on the morning metro hunched over great works and graphic novels, and then turn on the television in the evening to watch the literati discuss Céline or Saint-Exupéry or Duras. Even if the ubiquitous scent of baking bread or windows filled with chocolate or lingerie distracts the flâneur, he won’t miss these readers or the bookshops where they renew their faith.

Paris. A city of books, with streets and places named after Rabelais and Voltaire, Hugo and Maupassant, de Beauvoir and Proust. A city of timeless pleasure sophisticated enough to know that we need more than pleasure and comfort. But we will always need those things—or at least their promise—so that we may continue asking the painful questions. Readers know that by turning inward to mourn and to comprehend loss and uncertainty, we take the first step to turning outward.

One recently translated French novel provides delight and continual comfort as it tackles the future of one of its country's treasured institutions, the book trade.

Dear Reader by Paul Fournel (secretary and president of Oulipo, the group of experimental writers who seek “new structures and patterns” in literature) follows an old guard publisher, Robert Dubois, as he watches his beloved industry reconfigure, and perhaps self-destruct. Dubois finds himself edged aside by those who want to focus solely on sales figures and new forms of electronic delivery. They see him as an expendable and unwieldy cog: he’s jamming their machine.

The unsentimental Dubois understands what’s been lost in the world of publishing. There are no tears here à la You’ve Got Mail. No unexamined rejections of technology or progress, even while the novel’s structure (a devilishly clever yet almost invisible sestina) expresses exactly how Fournel feels. Without fear, without expectation, Dubois dives into the electronic reader (which he christens “dear reader”) foisted upon him to replace his heavy piles of manuscripts. He even begins his own clandestine venture into paperless publishing while he plots to jolt the traditional book business with one final trick.

After all, what does Dubois have to lose? His books return from stores in greater number than the new releases can file out of his warehouse. His long-cultivated writers seek better deals with savvier houses, and his interns have no idea who he is even though his name blazes across book spines.

Back to pleasure, and there’s plenty of it here. As Dubois’s life in publishing transforms, one of his writers stands him up for a lunch meeting. No matter what’s happening, no matter if books are dying or the world is on the precipice of revolution, he finds time to relish a solitary perfect artichoke:

The artichoke is a dish for the lonesome, because it is difficult to eat when facing someone else and quite divine when you’re on your own. … First come the hard fleshy parts; then, leaf by leaf, comes softer and subtler stuff. Green slowly shades into grey and then the last little cap of purple comes right off to reveal the beige tuft. … There’s no need to hurry an artichoke. You can suck a single leaf for minutes on end until it turns sour, or, on the contrary, you can snatch several leaves in a bunch and scour them with your front teeth to extract a solid mouthful. … At long last you reach the entertaining removal of the tuft. You take the hair between your thumb and the side of your knife and, if pulled gently, it comes off in small, neat quiffs to reveal the heart in all its glory, in a startling and very brief simulation of sex. Now the reward: use your knife and fork to enter the veggie heart directly...”

Dear Reader is perfectly French: literary yet compulsively readable, delicious while intellectually stimulating. It is sexy and robust and full of wine (and perfectly cooked fish) and clever turns of phrase. It looks to the future with a full understanding of the past so it doesn’t crumble when the foundation cracks. It looks for the things that have always been there to comfort.

“My great wall [of books] protects me,” Dubois explains. “And I read so as to take it to pieces, slowly and calmly. I shall pick books randomly and without premeditation, so reading will arise of its own free will, and I know it will be the right order. If you leave them to roam free, books can hardly be wrong.”

One intern, earnest but green, looks to Dubois for guidance as publishing moves toward its unstable future.

“But what can I do to reduce the risk of making a mistake?” she asks.

Dubois doesn’t hesitate: “Read, obviously. Read everything, all the time.”

They are discussing what it takes to be a good editor, but they could be talking about the sustenance and sanctuary and supervision that reading provides. About how it teaches us to be more empathetic. How not to judge. How to become better listeners. How—as Mario Vargas Llosa discusses in “Why Literature?”—to be better lovers. How to live. How to endure and continue living.


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