Exploring a Book Store In A Familiar Language

Ian Grant ’13  – Outside of Shakespeare and Company, along the Seine, under the shadow of Notre Dame in Paris, Wyatt Lewis and I sat on wooden stools outside the packed store on Monday night.  We were waiting for a reading by an English author to begin.  The topic was appropriate: a novel based on English expatriates in France.  The immediate area around Shakespeare and Co. was a bizarre drop of Anglophones in a sea of Francophones.

For almost three days prior to the reading I’d been suffering from a worsening case of tuning the French out when only French was being spoken.  Mind you, this was not out of prejudice or ignorance but simply out of necessity; I only knew maybe four French words coming into the country.  So when we sat in front of Shakespeare and Co. and heard a large crowd of Anglophones, even after only three days, we were in a state of calm nostalgia.  It was like hearing a song you’d not heard in many years: it was familiar and comforting, but still distant in someway, as if we’d moved past it for a reason.

Lining the window of the bookstore was a mix of rare first editions with brown, tattered bindings and fresh soft covers — all in English.  The same was true of the printer-paper signs posted on the doors, “For the courtesy of our guests, no photography please.”  Even the banner above the door celebrating the life of the recently passed owner bore a culturally familiar name: George Whitman.  An Anglican name through and through.

Wyatt (Lewis) leaned over to me and said, “This is incredible.  Here we are, in the middle of Paris and I feel like this place is ours.  Back home everywhere is a little ours but it’s also a little distant.  But here.  Here I know that I belong.”  He was right.  Thousands of miles away from the States we’d found a place that we could definitively call our own through a mutual language.

We’d both suffered embarrassment from not knowing French.  Maybe it was having to resort to non-verbal communication like pointing (luckily it never came down to grunting).  We were clearly foreign.

The Anglophonic expatriate artists, the ones who also originally established Shakespeare and Company after the Great War and who were are following in a way, came together because it was easier — they all spoke the same language.  They were able to express themselves (and they were artists after all; expression is first and fore-most).  It’s easy to understand then why we found the idea of an English bookstore with English-speaking patrons so appealing—it was easy.  But easy is not always the most fun, it’s simply the most comforting.  That’s why, when the reading was over, we reimmersed ourselves in Paris, spreading around our poorly pronounced “bonjour’s” and “merci’s” because ultimately we want to be accepted into the French culture just the same as we are accepted into the Anglophonic culture.

The next day, I went back to Shakespeare and Co. to look around the rare books section.  In a corner of a shelf about knee level I found an English translation of Ovid’s Aeneid from the mid 1800s.  Its binding was torn about half way down the spine and a few pages jutted out a bit further than the rest.  It was cheap comparatively, 30 Euros.  The book should have fallen apart.  It didn’t look like it should have survived its time.  But it had, and the people who had owned it must have felt that it was worth keeping together because it was important to them.

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