On Being Functionally Illiterate…in France
I’ve said it before and it’s probably obvious yet still bears repeating: I love books. I love their weight and their heft, I love their smell and the sound their spines make when you open them and I love the promise inherent in their very being. So it was a special sort of torture for me to spend ten days in France, surrounding by books, and not be able to read a single one. Not even my own.
I only visited a handful of French bookstores but I was struck, at every one, by how bright they are. The spine of a French book—that is, a book produced by the French publishing industry–is, for the most part, a white thing, unadorned by the sort of graphic flourishes we in America are accustomed to. This makes the effect of walking into a French bookstore akin to walking into a cool room. Something Kubrickian, maybe, like the strange rooms Keir Dullea walks through before meeting the Star Child only without all the menace, or the Korova Milk Bar without any of that off-putting sexual weirdness. At any rate, I found the interiors of French bookstores welcoming enough though serious and, yes, a little intimidating.
But the French booksellers . . . Ah! The French booksellers were warm and vibrant, excited by books and pleased to see me and (rightfully) proud of their shelves. They were generous to a fault—each and every one—and the breadth of their knowledge and passion were apparent with every word. In France, booksellers take classes on how to sell books—special training and education—and the way they speak about literature was like nothing I’d ever experienced before. I couldn’t really keep up—though I enjoyed trying to—and, more than once, I wondered who the hell I thought I was, making appearances in these cool, beautiful rooms and having so little to say that could add anything to anything at all.
But, even for all that, even for being functionally illiterate in their country, the French treated me like a visiting dignitary. In beautiful Aubenas, at Le Grand Café Français, the owner, Maxime, gave me a copy of the French edition of Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian (or, as the French have it, Méridien de sang)because I mentioned I collect them (now have three) while his partner, Alice, invited us into their home to show off her newborn kittens. In Aix-en-Provence, the owners of Librairie Goulard took me on a walking tour of the old city and pointed out the old advertising on the sides of the buildings, brass pigs, and the secret sexual symbology hidden in the wrought iron-grill work of long-closed brothels.
Christian, owner of La Librairie Nouvelle in Voiron, gifted me a cd of funky, French blues and one of some even better jazz and his co-presenter, Sophie, read a section from Wilderness that, even though I couldn’t understand a bit of it, sounded as lovely as music. And in Vienne, Alain, co-owner of Libraire Lucioles showed off the city’s ancient Roman ruins—temples, walls, and a little stretch of one of the Roman roads that once stitched together an empire—while his partner, Renaud, grinned appreciatively when I chose KISS’s “God of Thunder” during my radio interview then turned me on to Stanislaw Lem which I’m pretty sure I’ll be forever grateful for. Finally, in Lyon, Ivan, the owner of L’esprit Livre, treated me to not only a lovely tour of the city but some excellent conversation (and more good leads for future reading) on Napoleon, the Battle of Austerlitz, and the tactics of the times as well as an excellent meal which included a bowl of seasoned fat.
At every stop along the way, while I was fretting and nervous about what I was supposed to be doing and how not to come off like an ass, I was treated to kindnesses unlooked-for, excellent food, marvelous shelves of beautiful books, and kindred spirits who seemed to love books in the same ways I do . . . though, of course, they could actually read them.