“Read a book a day” was one of the guidelines of George Whitman to those “tumbleweeds” who visited his English language bookstore Shakespeare and Company in the Latin Quarter of Paris across the Seine from Notre Dame Cathedral.
So what better way to honor that request than with a freshly purchased copy of “Shakespeare and Company: A History of the Rag & Bone Shop of the Heart”; the autobiography of a hundred year old bookstore, and at the same time a tribute to the man who gave his life to books, who fused so much of his own persona into the DNA of that crumbling old building that it is now impossible to distinguish them.
I came to Paris, flying through for work and making a quick stop, for two express purposes. I wanted to spend some time at the Louvre; to see some beautiful things and commune with the energy of those who left a footprint in a world that was forced to consider them, and to visit Shakespeare and Company. For a while I have felt the need to sit in the most famous bookstore in the world and read a whole book through. To perhaps discover renewed energy for my own writing in a place that has inspired so many others. You see; I also am a novelist, a writer, an erstwhile poet and playwright – if not a particularly successful one. How different is that from the other tumbleweeds who wandered through dreaming of a career in letters and ending up as noodle factory managers or housewives somewhere in middle America?
I read through the store’s autobiography while sitting on a bed on the second floor overlooking the Seine and Notre Dame surrounded by a constant churn of humanity; a herd of Chinese looking for the bathroom – “No you can’t take pictures in here”, it’s a steadfast policy – young people sketchpads out in a desperate attempt to look troubled and deep and yearning. A washed up technocrat who considers himself a writer – oh wait that’s me!!!!!!
I was very glad for my time at Shakespeare and Co., although it was too short. Abroad for work, I did not have the time to tarry as I perhaps would have in other times, when I was younger and more foolish or more daring. Yes, I am immensely grateful for the visit; even though let’s be honest, I don’t think George would have liked me very much. I would never have been one of his favorites. Shakespeare was his “communist utopia masquerading as a bookstore” and my writing is deeply conservative and faithful when it is not libertarian (Tolkien and Lewis meet Vargas Llosa maybe, with a hint of Pilgrims Progress thrown in). I have no time for mayhem – which if the “History of the Rag and Bone Shop” is to be believed is what the 100 year history of Shakespeare and Co. has been like. I think I’d have had a better time with Tolkien and his Inklings sitting around an Oxford bar than listening to Sartre and Neruda discussing the emerging Marxist world.
I do think it’s funny that the bookstore is in the tumbled down remains of what was a monastery from the 1600s; because I’ve also had a dream niggling at the back of my mind for years of starting my own Shakespeare, in an old 17th century monastery high in the Venezuelan Andes. A bookstore and writing salon for those who want to reach back. Instead of drugs and sex, we would have devotions led by a mystic priest in the ancient chapel at dawn and then hard work outside to clear the head for words to enter, as they always do when our brains are not clouded with substance or groggy with sleep. Exercise in the cool Andean morning air; and instead of late nights and alcohol induced utopias we’d have early mornings and the goodness of a life lived close to the land. A testament to self-discipline that makes good writing deep and meaningful as it connects with what came before and points the way to what is just now becoming visible from over the curvature of the earth.
But alas, I lack the courage. That and Whitman’s communist utopia has been fully realized in Venezuela, making attracting writers to that socialist paradise difficult. But back to Paris – yes, I was very glad for my visit on a cold drizzly morning. And congrats to Shakespeare and those who keep alive the 100 year old dream of a palace of words along the Seine. The world is better for it.