Belfast Telegraph

Friday 31 October 2014

Step inside this shop and rekindle your love of books

This is going to sound pretentious but there's no avoiding it. There is an English language book store in the middle of Paris called Shakespeare and Company. It is a petanque toss away from Notre Dame cathedral but it is on a pilgrimage of a different kind that tourists and Parisians alike seek out the studied shambles of a shop front and the cool nooks and crannies inside.

Founded in August 1951 by an American George Whitman who ended up in Paris at the end of the Second World War it changed its name to Shakespeare and Company in tribute to another American, Sylvia Beach, who founded a similar shop in 1919. While Beach had giants such as James Joyce, Ernest Hemingway, Ezra Pound and F Scott Fitzgerald camping out in her shop and the flat upstairs while writing their masterpieces Whitman continued the tradition with a new generation of scribes such as Henry Miller, Anais Nin, Allen Ginsberg and James Baldwin.

In truth I'd imagine both enterprises would have been palaces to oversized egos and pretension. An evening with Fitzgerald and Hemingway would likely have been memorable for all the wrong reasons.

Yet an association with the big beasts of literature is only half the attraction of the book shop today. It is a delightful, exhilarating way to spend time. The place is tiny, only two stories high. Old typewriters lounge about waiting hopefully for a new William Burroughs to start tapping away and the aisles are wide enough for one person (French not American size) at a time. The shelves reach way up to the ceiling. Two rickety ladders are the only way to reach the top and I'm not sure the punters are allowed to risk it. If you are say a B for Burgess or Baudelaire you are at eye level and are OK. If you happen to be H for Heaney or Hamsun you are up in the Gods with a corresponding affect on sales.

Spend two hours there and you are on a voyage of discovery, of ideas, of writers you've never heard of writing about things you've never dreamed of. Titles spin out at you from every corner of the shop, some written by people long dead and forgotten, others by the latest big name. All are given equal billing.

It is the most glorious antidote to the Kindle. For this is what we are in danger of losing in the digital, information at our finger tip age. Browsing and discovery might now be words synonymous with the internet but actually it can be the enemy of both.

You journey into the web for things you know you want.

You download a book onto your Kindle because you like the author, iTunes gives you the latest record from your favourite band at discount prices.

Shakespeare and Company gives up treasures you hardly knew existed. It expands the horizon.

As a male I also have to confess to a love of book shelves and rows of cds and vinyl on show (see anything by Nick Hornby) because I like to show off my good taste. I like to sneak a look at my hosts' obvious lack of the aforementioned when I'm visiting. Wouldn't life be dull if a single iPod and Kindle replaced those lovely displays in our houses?

Throughout history there have been corrections. Just when you think society is travelling super fast in one direction a plateau arrives. So it will be in this digital age. A slowing down to have time to think, a reaction against anonymous bile, a renewed willingness to experiment, a dislike of herd mentality, even the caress of a cover will turn us half back to the things we have almost lost. The book shop is not dead yet.

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