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The Year in Books

By Eileen Murphy | Posted 12/20/2000

Like many wannabe serious writers, I've long felt the need to visit Paris. I envisioned myself sitting in corner cafés and reading thick French tomes while I wrote notes--with a fountain pen--in a cloth-covered notebook. I imagined I'd find inspiration in visiting the sites frequented by James Joyce, Ernest Hemingway, Jean-Paul Sartre, and Simone de Beauvoir. I saw myself valiantly employing my academic French in an effort to communicate with the exotic Parisians.

So, this fall I spent a week in Paris. My intrepid traveling companion planned most of the trip; I limited my input to a short list of places I'd like to visit: "cool cafés, the Louvre, the Sorbonne, bookstores."

According to the travel books I finally got around to reading as we endured our six-hour flight, we'd have no trouble fulfilling my fourth goal. Bookstores, including English-language ones, were everywhere. We'd even be able to visit Shakespeare & Co., the legendary bohemian destination that allowed Hemingway to shop on credit and whose owner, Sylvia Beach, financed the original publication of Joyce's Ulysses. According to news clippings my companion found, the bookstore even employed a "writer-in-residence" who slept in the store's upstairs twin-size bed, showered at a neighborhood gym, and helped American students practice their conversational French.

How romantic! How bohemian! Where do I sign up? I thought.

But, as is so often the case, the truth was dramatically different from the reality the travel books (and my pretentious imagination) had invented. As we scanned the travel guides for details, we discovered that the store was no longer in its original location, so there was no chance of finding JAMES AND NORA carved into the woodwork in Joyce's own hand. Moreover, it wasn't even the same "store." A rival bookseller had purchased the name and some of the stock from Beach. To add insult to injury, the new owner had set the store in the midst of a tourist Mecca--today's Shakespeare & Co. faces Notre Dame.

We visited all the same. But while I found a couple of inexpensive used books to bring home, the store was a big disappointment. The stock was the same crap I find in American chain bookstores. The store was overrun with American tourists who wanted to have an authentic experience. An older American woman cornered my companion and made him look at photos of San Francisco Beat poets that she claimed were her friends. She was indignant that the Shakespeare & Co. staff hadn't cared about the pictures.

I didn't blame them, but I also got the sense that Shakespeare & Co. didn't care much about anything other than exploiting literary groupies such as myself. The store had all of the elements of authentic bohemia--books shelved haphazardly, staffers who slouched against the counter as they read. But there was something so cheesy about the whole thing. I couldn't put my finger on it until I reached the philosophy section. There, amidst a couple of English-language versions of famous existentialist manifestos, we saw Introducing Sartre, Introducing Camus, Introducing Hegel, and so on.

When I imagined shopping in Paris, I pictured myself buying up well-worn literary texts filled with margin notes and yellow-marked highlighting. I did not see myself skimming Existentialism for Dummies.

For the rest of our trip we visited only French-language bookstores. There are a million of those in Paris, most catering to a particular niche--architecture books, science books, history books. I could read very little of the selection--mostly I comforted myself by leafing through The Little Prince--but I felt at home. These were real bookstores, not tourist attractions. There was nothing to photograph in these shops, and no one to show photos to. They existed to sell books and make money, nothing more. That's the exchange I prefer. It's honest.

So, I guess this is an essay about my most significant literary experience in 2000. I went in search of literary Paris and found that it existed on pages, not in places. I discovered that I'd already encountered it in books I'd owned and read and loved for years. I realized that appreciating what James Joyce wrote is much more important than sitting where he sat. I also realized that the era of the bookstore as a writer's haven is long gone. Now when I see a bookstore bill itself as a "salon" that holds "community events," I know it's about marketing: The owners don't trust that good books alone are enough to draw customers. And they should be.

With that in mind, Michael Anft, Mahinder Kingra, and I submit our favorite page-based literary experiences for the year 2000. Feel free to browse.

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