If there is one thing I love more than travelling, it is reading. If I was forced to either never travel again or never read again, I would keep reading in my life every time. I may choose to blog about travel, but books are and will always be my first love.
Paris’ literary connections are well known – the city has spawned countless classics and has been home to some of the greats of literature throughout the ages, including Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Victor Hugo and so many more. That spirit still pervades the streets of Paris, with the left bank of the Seine lined with second hand book sellers and innumerable cafes to while away the hours with a book or a pen in hand.
Travelling with another person is all about compromise, and unlike me, Jim actively dislikes reading. We spent a total of 4 days in Paris, and whilst I could quite happily have dedicated that whole time to a literary trawl around the city, that would not have been fair on Jim.
However, I did still manage to find what immediately became one of my favourite ever bookshops – Shakespeare and Company.
This English language bookshop in the Latin Quarter is well known, and it is a definite tourist trap. However, unlike many tourist traps it is still absolutely full of charm. Walking in, I felt as if I had stepped into the pages of Harry Potter, with floor to ceiling books, irregular shelves, ladders to reach the highest shelves and endless nooks and crannies, all bursting with books.
Upstairs is a quiet reading room, with a collection of old books that are not for sale. I randomly picked up The Mill on the Floss by George Eliot and read a few pages. This was a heavily annotated version from the 1960s. I am a person that keeps all of my books in pristine condition, and so I prefer to read new books rather than second hand where I can. However, reading the annotated notes of one of the previous owners of this book was like being privy to a second story – not just that of the characters of the book, but also of the book itself and it’s previous owner. This is something that could never be replicated with an e-reader, and just reinforced to me again why it is that I love real books.
The upstairs of Shakespeare and Company is also strewn with old fashioned typewriters. I have seen many advertisements for writing breaks, which usually consist of some naturally beautiful but isolated spot in the countryside or by the sea. But could there really be anything more inspiring than a room with floor to ceiling old books with an old fashioned typewriter on the desk and a view of the Seine?
I had a plan that I would buy the Hunchback of Notre Dame by Victor Hugo from Shakespeare and Company, as there seemed no better place to buy it than a bookshop with a view of Notre Dame. At €17, that was definitely not going to happen, but Shakespeare and Company is definitely not short on customers – the only draw back is that the narrow, confined spaces make it difficult to really become absorbed in browsing through the legions of books as there are so many people crowded into the shop.
The visit to Shakespeare and Company was the first introduction to literature in Paris but was not the last. In the UK, we are subjected to regular stories about the decline of the printed book and the difficulties faced by independent book stores in light of the domination of Amazon. Paris totally bucks this trend – there are dozens of independent book stores of which only a tiny few are English language book stores frequented by tourists. My favourites were the tiny book shops of the Marais, which had books stacked in every conceivable space, including on the floor.
I don’t own an e-reader yet, although from a travel perspective I can understand the benefits and I will never say never. But there is something special about a printed book and I personally think it would be devastating if they declined into oblivion. Paris provides a model for the rest of the world – it is absolutely steeped in literary history and is proud of its literary connections. Yes, Parisians will own e-readers and shop on Amazon, but the independent book store hasn’t died out in Paris, and appears to be an integral part of the city. To be so steeped in literature is inspiring, and Paris continues to inspire new generations of writers. As for me, I have actually read very little French literature, but visiting Paris has inspired me to read much more French literature, and anything written in Paris. On the whole, I didn’t love Paris, but literary Paris is my kind of place.