A bibliophile in France

If you know me, you know how I went through a Margaret Atwood phase. It was during that phase that I stumbled upon this quote by her, which pretty much sums up my equation with books:

I read for pleasure and that is the moment I learn the most.”

Obviously I read for pleasure. And I read a lot. As a bibliophile in France, I’m rediscovering the joys of immersing myself in a book.

The French are known to be people who value the power of reading. Even in this post-everything world, where people are only found stuck to their screen, locked in a time warp of mindless scrolling, one can find enough people reading in public places. Since last summer, I too have started moving around with at least one “metro” book, that I can pull out to read while I’m commuting, or waiting somewhere. It’s helped me to read more. More importantly, it’s helped to me finish books that might have gotten pushed to the back of my shelves. 

Coming from a country where bookstores are a dying commerce, the librairies of France are a true joy. From the well-known chains, like Gibert Joseph, and Decitre, to the indie stores like Shakespeare & Co in Paris , the famous Parisian bouquinistes, and the hole-in-the-wall stores selling books of a particular genre, or rare, vintage books…every store is a treat for a bibliophile.

A few bookstores that occupy a special spot in my heart: 

📚 The pop-up, discount store by Decitre in Grenoble, from where I’ve bought some unique books as gifts, 

📚 La Comédie Humaine in Avignon, the first place where I bought books in English in France.

📚 The Abbey Bookshop in Paris, which reminds me of Blossom bookstore in Bangalore, and where I’ve found books with the same serendipitous luck.

Libraries are also a big thing here. From the vibrant (and shockingly noisy), public libraries run with the municipal funds, to the more exclusive, or academic libraries where the very air seems to exude elite intelligentsia. In both, you are welcomed by the sight of people with their noses buried in books, leaving with arms weighed down by various “documents.” Some libraries allow you to check out up to 30 documents (magazines, books and CDs), which was quite a surprise for me. The largest number of books I’ve ever been allowed to borrow at a time was 5, so the idea of taking 30 books from a library somehow feels terribly wrong. 

The French love for books is evident in other ways too. Posters announcing the release of new books compete for attention with cultural events, historical monuments, and all kinds of services and products.

In summer, along with the rentrée for school, they also celebrate the rentrée littéraire from August to November when they release a large number of books. It’s much talked about, and there’s quite a bit of excitement among people regarding this.

I almost forgot to mention the cabanes de livres, or small boxes set up in streets, where you can drop off books that you’ve read, and pick up books left by others. An extension of book-crossing, and the most delightful way of discovering gems (or not)! I love coming across the little boxes in squares, and gardens and just perusing the books left behind. But what I find really interesting is the way they put old books outside their homes, lined up neatly on the footpath little little soldiers awaiting their fate. Not spread out on a sheet for sale, like you see in some countries (including India). But left on the street just like that.

The first time I saw this, I was quite appalled. My Indian sensibilities were shocked that somebody could leave books on the ground like that. How can you leave books on the ground? What if nobody took them? Would they just stay there till the streets were cleaned? What if it rained? None of the books appealed to me, but I told myself that if they were still there at the end of the day, I’d give them a home. But a couple of hours later, all the books were gone. I’ve now seen this happen a few times. Sometimes people are kind enough to leave the books in a carton, but mostly they are just displayed, or even thrown rather carelessly on the footpath. But on almost every occasion, I’ve noticed that books are gone in a few hours. If there was any indication of a society that values books, it’s this, and I’m glad to find myself in this country of readers.

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