Reading About Paris During Lockdown

Reading About Paris During Lockdown

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Image © Pexels / Andrea Piacquadio

Well, the bad news is (as some memes are putting it) it would appear we may have all been sent to our rooms for a while, to think about what we’ve done…

The good news is, we’ve got a wonderful opportunity to do a lot more reading than we’re usually able to do ahead of us.

Here is a suggested reading list for people who love to read about Paris, during this period of quarantine. What are your favorites? Share in the comments section below.

Classic French Novels

This may be an ideal time to attack some of those very long nineteenth century novels we keep wishing we had read. If your French is good enough (or if you’re determined to make it better during this time) you may want to read one of those novels in the original. If not, of course, English translations are easy to come by.

At the top of my own personal list in this category is Les Miserables by Victor Hugo.

 I can also enthusiastically recommend Zola’s novel Au bonheur des dames, which I read a few years ago. The backdrop is the creation of les grands magasins in the late nineteenth century in Paris. Zola used Le Bon Marché as his model department store, and in addition to being a very compelling human story, The Ladies’ Paradise (as it is called in English) offers a fascinating glimpse into the creation (and psychology) of this 19th century innovation in retail sales, as well as the details of everyday life in Paris, and the impact of these super-stores on the neighborhoods in which they were established. I remember it as being (surprisingly) not too difficult to read in French also.

Le Bon Marché. Photo: Wikimedia, hiro449944 (CC BY 3.0)

Contemporary Novels Set in Paris

My goodness, there are so many fine books to choose from here, and many of them I have reviewed for Bonjour Paris. If I had to choose my top three recommendations of the moment, I guess I’d choose Haunting Paris; The Paris Wife; and The Parisian.

Anthologies

Americans in Paris, A Literary Anthology published by the Library of America, and edited by Adam Gopnik, is a wonderful collection of excerpts from letters, essays, and longer works of both fiction and nonfiction, from the eighteenth century to the present.

Paris Was Ours: Thirty-Two Writers Reflect on the City of Light, compiled and edited by Penelope Rowlands, is a beautiful collection of essays exploring a question Rowlands had asked herself: “Why, out of all the places I’ve lived, did Paris affect me the most?”

A Paris All Your Own: Bestselling Women Writers on the City of Light, is edited by Eleanor Brown, who wrote to 17 authors of novels set in Paris and asked them to help her figure out why writers are so obsessed with Paris. Their “clever and funny and dreamy and sad and thoughtful answers” are collected here.

Photo: Pexels, Flickr

History

When Paris Went Dark: The City of Light under German Occupation, 1940-1944 by Ronald C. Rosbottom. I’ve been wanting to read this book for several years now. Maybe now I will finally have the chance to do so.

The Greater Journey: Americans in Paris by David McCullough is another book about Paris that I was only able to start, never finish. I loved his book about the building of the Brooklyn Bridge, and I’m pretty sure I’ll love this one too.

Line outside a Paris bakery in spring 1945. The liberation did not end the food shortages. (Imperial War Museums, U.K.)
Photo: Wikipedia, Ministry of Information Photo Division Photographe. Public domain

Mystery

Mark Pryor and Cara Black are both authors of mystery series set in Paris. Can you say “binge reading,” anyone? For a change?

If you are in the mood for a change of setting, you might want to read M. L. Longworth’s series of mysteries set in Aix-en-Provence. Along with engaging whodunit plots, Longworth delivers witty, astute observations of life in the south of France, and an affectionate insider view of “French ways.”

Short Stories and Essays

Short story collections also offer good reading for times when you crave extra reading material, but may also have a hard time concentrating on longer works. In the classic French tradition, why not pick up a book of short stories by one of the 19th century masters of the short story, Guy de Maupassant? Or, in a more modern tradition, you might enjoy Paris Postcards, a delightful and very engaging 21st century collection of linked short stories by Guy Thomas Hibbert.

I also often recommend David Downie’s Paris Paris: Journey into the City of Light. This collection of essays on the “places, people, and phenomena” of Paris provides fascinating behind-the-scenes insight into everything from the thought (and expense) that goes into lighting the monuments of Paris, and the design of the chairs in the Luxembourg Gardens, to profiles of famous Parisians from Coco Chanel to the boat people of the Seine.

Photo: Pexels, Ena Marinkovic

Poetry

Poetry is good for people to read, especially in times of turmoil and general distress.

Cecilia Woloch’s Tsigan: The Gypsy Poem is not really about Paris per se, though some of the poems are set there. It is an incredibly beautiful work of art—spare, powerful, hard-hitting, intensely felt, and very informative. (It’s good reading for an international “time out” period, too. We have a lot to think about!)

Why not pick one of your favorite poets and get that book off the shelf, or buy a new volume of poetry? Read the poems the way they are meant to be read: slowly, carefully, one at a time. More than once! And preferably, aloud. Allow the poet to speak to you. Allow the words to work their magic. Poetry can lift the spirit and calm fears and dismay. It can help us feel more human and less alone. It really can…

Of course there is the question of where to buy books when so many bookstores are temporarily closed. One excellent option is to buy your books either directly online from your local indie bookseller, or from IndieBound. And FNAC is offering e-books for free during the lockdown.

Stay home. Stay happy. Stay well. And enjoy this wonderful time for reading, everyone!

Love Paris as much as we do? Get some more Paris inspiration by following our Instagram page. 

Image © Unsplash / fabspotato

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Janet Hulstrand is a freelance writer, editor and teacher who divides her time between France and the U.S. She is the author of "Demystifying the French: How to Love Them, and Make Them Love You," and she writes frequently on France for a variety of publications, including her blog, Writing from the Heart, Reading for the Road. She teaches “Paris: A Literary Adventure” for the education abroad program of Queens College of the City University of New York; classes at Politics & Prose bookstore in Washington D.C.; and Writing from the Heart workshop/retreats in Essoyes, a beautiful little village in the Champagne region (l’Aube).

5 COMMENTS

  1. I highly recommend the new book by Elaine Sciolino, “The Seine. The River that Made Paris”. Lots of detailed research and although it is about the Seine inevitably it is mainly about Paris.

  2. Plus:
    Every book about Paris by John Baxter(he also does film criticism) and
    Le Divorce and Le Marriage by Diane Johnson

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