Tuesday, July 10, 2012


He was very concerned about it.  So concerned, in fact, that he dragged me out of Luxembourg Garden, where we had been talking for over an hour, down Boulevard St.-Michel to the main and largest Gibert-Joseph bookstore on the Boulevard and took me inside.  Until that point, I had only been in small French bookstores, akin to the small quaint bookstores in the small coastal towns of California or the Mom & Pop stores of small-town America.  But even this is not a particularly effective description.  Bookstores in Paris are actually called Libraries and what we typically call a Library is called a Bibliothèque.  There’s a librarie near my apartment that looks exactly like the bookshop in Disney’s Beauty and the Beast, which is supposed to be set in France, isn’t it?  And if you can imagine a small store-front room off of a little road, with paned windows, a painted façade, and the word Librarie painted in white or gold letters, you’re closer to the idea of a typical bookshop in Paris.

Gibert-Joseph, on the other hand, is a large store and is too large to look anything like the little libraries throughout Paris.  I’d seen the stores along St.-Michel, some for books, some for DVDs, some for music, and one a papeterie—where one buys paper and the necessary tools for writing—others for school books, some for selling and some for buying, but because there were so many, I didn’t expect the store he pulled me into to be as large as it was.  Seven floors; but that didn’t keep it from being packed with books.

In our conversation in Luxembourg, lasting a little over an hour, we had talked about literature mostly, for he had read everything.  Like most of the people who I like, and who like me, they all read more often than I do.  I’ve found through them that I’m not much of a reader.  He spoke to me about American writers, English writers, and French writers, and he wanted to know what I’d read, and what I thought about it.  I told him I’d read Zola’s L’Assemoir, which is so depressing its impossible to forget you’ve read it, and I’d read Marguerite de Navarre’s Heptameron, Chronicles by Jean Froissart—the original historian of the Hundred Years’ War, and La Cité des Dames by Christine Pizan.  We talked a long time about some of these, but he had not read all of them.  He also spoke to me about some of the American writers he’d read—the one I remember now was Virginia Woolf.  He’d read To the Lighthouse in English.  I was impressed, to say the least.

Have you ever read Woolf’s To the Lighthouse?  He said it was beautiful writing, but that he was lost on some of it.  I told him it was stream of consciousness and he asked what this meant.  So I explained, using her book as an example.  It’s when she writes everything that comes into her head, as it comes into her head, exactly the way she thinks it—rather than filtering the thoughts through organizations of structure like accepted sentence syntax and punctuation.  It was her feminist response to male structure.  He found the term ‘stream of consciousness’ most interesting.

And after we talked about literature for a while, and he shared with me that his favorite writer was Marcel Proust—and had I read anything of his?  I said I hadn’t, but for those of you who know me, this shouldn’t surprise you, since I never seem to have read what people ask me if I’ve read—and he’d seen the English cover, and are all English covers that way?

I stopped him.  « Qu’est-ce que veux-tu dire? » He responded again, “They are ugly.”  “What are?” “English book covers!”  And that’s what it was, that got him so riled, we had to leave the garden and go into several bookshops so he could prove his point.  He went the Gibert-Joseph showing me the nice, expensive French editions of books which were bound in cloth, and which he admitted were too expensive for a typical purchase, and then he went to the French translations of English books, which covers were clean and simple.  They usually had a picture on the front, with a white bar at the top with the book title, and a white bar at the bottom with the author’s name.  They all looked very much like Penguin’s Classics Series--except white, instead of black.

I had realized this before while walking by the libraries that the books all seemed to be white, and difficult to tell apart.  It occurred to me that the must be technical books of some kind, since some libraries sell merely les livres médicaux (Medical), or livres anciens et rare (Ancient and Rare), livres jeunesse (for Children).  I’d also seen people in the garden reading books, all of which seemed to have the same cover, and took them all for classics.  In fact, I’m sure I have somewhere in my notes: “The French all seem to be reading classics.  Either they’re all very cultured, or they’re catching up on the reading they should have done as young-adults.”  It turns out, and I learned through this tour of Gibert-Joseph that any French literature had these book covers, and it had nothing to do with them being medical books, or law books.  He proceeded show me all sorts of French books, all of which looked very similar.

Then, he spent a long time trying to find the English-language books, and when he did, he was proud of himself.  He touched the flashy book covers and confirmed, “See?  Ugly.”  I admit, I kind of laughed.  I liked the French literature book covers.  They were simple and clean, the way I often like my book covers, and far be it from me to purchase a book with an ugly book cover—no seriously, I won’t—but as always, in comparisons, you realize the mentality of your own culture.

I proceeded to explain that we had book covers like the French ones, too, and pulled out a few of the classics off the bookshelves to show him the covers which looked similar to his beloved French book covers.  Then I told him that we had artistic covers for best-sellers, classics, historical-fictions or non-fictions, and the like.  I pulled out a few books for some other covers, things written by Jack Kerouac or John Steinbeck which often require a book cover more artistic than the ‘classics.’  Then, of course, there were the books whose covers intended to catch your attention so you’d see them and pick them up while waiting in line, or while passing the bookshop into work.  This apparently was not the scenario of his book-buying experiences.

I realize, in retrospection that books have to be this way now.  At least in the United States, book stores are going out of business rapidly, thanks to the likes of ‘digital’ books.  And for those of us who are still holding on to our desire to turn physical pages, amazon will always save us a trip out of the house.  Except for the even smaller population of persons who regularly go into bookshops, wander the books, and purchase one or two to keep the whole thing going a little longer—my father is one such person—bookstores are becoming unnecessary.

Since coming to Paris, I have come to appreciate bookshops a little more.  There’s an art to the proper browsing of books in a bookshop which I observed my father do my whole life, but never tried or put into practice until I came to Paris.  To properly browse a bookshop and then make a purchase, one firstly needs to be somewhat knowledgeable either about books or authors and secondly cannot be searching for any book in particular or else you will never find it.  One must scan the book titles and authors until something strikes a chord, and then one must pull the book off the bookshelf, page through it, and decide if it’s something one wants to buy.  Sometimes walking around the bookshop while carrying said book helps make a decision about the purchase.

The problem with five easy steps to perfect browsing is that most Americans are rather impulsive buyers when it comes to their entertainment, and also, most working Americans don’t believe they have the time to meander through a bookshop.  If we need a cook book we go to the cooking section and find one we like.  If we’ve read a review about a good book, then we go to the bestseller stands and buy it.  But we rarely browse, we rarely have an infinite bank of knowledge about authors and we rarely buy a book we’ve never heard of or read about.  And that’s why we need catchy/flashy book covers.  If we’re in line, and something catches our eye, we’re more likely to read it and decided within seconds if it’s interesting enough to spend time reading.  The French book covers would never do for a working-class American who has so little time to spare.

Or else, that’s what we believe.  Thanks to my French friend from Luxembourg gardens, I now know this about French culture: the French don’t think that way—that they have little time to spare.  I mean, I’m sure they do think they don’t have enough time, but it doesn’t keep them from taking their time.  They browse.  They browse everything.  I found out early on that if I stood in front of the cheeses section of the grocery store for five minutes, no one would find that strange.  The old French woman next to me was doing the same thing.  Browsing the cheeses.  Furthermore, Paris is an entire city of shop windows and if something catches your eye, it’s not so strange to stop and look.  Shoes. Clothing. Jewelry. Food.—and books.  There are stalls outside of bookshops for browsing, something you rarely see in a big city in the United States.  And to me, that’s a significant cultural difference.  Browsing.  Who knew?

*13/7/12 Update: My neighbor gave me this gorgeous french phrase used to express 'window shopping': faire du lèche-vitrines.  Literally it means to lick the showcases (or shop windows).


  1. It is odd to find one's personal browsing methodology so perfectly described in print. I particularly like the part about wandering the bookstore with potential purchase in hand.
    But I think I disagree about the ugliness of English language book covers. I find that there are always two or three trends at work at the same time, so that you might have incredibly lurid covers on many books at the same time you have very plain covers. Recently some publisher was trying to market classics, like "Jane Eyre" with covers that made them look like a "Twilight" sequel (the mostly black cover with a single small picture of a moon or a rose, and the title in some distinctive font in white against the black backgoround.) I still love the covers (for instance) of the Raymond Chandler paperbacks that I bought in the 1970's; they all had a flower in the foreground and some mysterious dark scene in the background, promising something inherently romantic in addition to the mystery and danger.

    1. I agree about the book covers--I rather like our bookcovers, and I like that so many of them are so beautiful and artistic, and NOT plain, but not busy either. I agree that there are several trends at work--and that some of them are quite beautiful, while others are "ugly."

      I bet you never realized you taught me how to browse. :)