On Reading Joan Didion in Paris

Joan Didion

On a Spring day that felt like Winter, I climbed the stairs to the second floor of Shakespeare and Company, the legendary Left Bank bookstore. It was the kind of day we call “smoggy” in Los Angeles, if only because smoggy days come more frequently than overcast ones. I passed under the doorframe, glancing up at the well-photographed epigraph “Be not inhospitable to strangers lest they be angels in disguise,” and entered the portion of the bookstore known as the library.

Shakespeare and Company, originally owned by Sylvia Beach, became known as the playground for the writers of The Lost Generation, the group described in Hemingway’s classic A Moveable Feast. Later, in a new incarnation under George Whitman, the Beats made the bookstore their domain, and thus Shakespeare and Company began to serve as a cultural touchstone to generations of young, aspiring writers. Having read A Moveable Feast on my flight to Paris, I showed up at Shakespeare and Company, eager to browse, only hours after disembarking.

While the main floor sells books, the second floor has long served as a library, filled with shelves of worn volumes and cozy nooks where anyone can spend a day (or night, for some) reading. By Spring, I’d browsed at Shakespeare and Company dozens of times, bought about as many books, and strolled around the upstairs. On that one particular Spring day, though, something drew me to the main room of the library, the one filled with benches and chairs facing the large windows looking outward onto rue de la Bûcherie and the Seine. I had been craving Joan Didion for weeks for reasons I couldn’t explain; after all, I had only read two of her essays. I crawled atop a bench, scanning the top shelf for her name, hoping to find Slouching Toward Bethlehem. Instead, I found The Book of Common Prayer. I sat down in a chair, cracked open the cover, and began to read, expecting to pass only a half hour. I could say I read a library book at Shakespeare and Company, like Hemingway, like Fitzgerald; that would be enough. Instead, hours passed, and night fell like a navy curtain. I closed the novel at the halfway mark and headed back to my apartment. Maybe I would come back to finish or maybe not; I had already achieved what I’d set out to do.

I was newly twenty-one then, in a foreign city, learning that alone does not mean lonely, that forgiveness requires strength, that the concept of “home” expands and contracts with time. My thoughts were not unique, however revelatory they seemed. As Joan Didion aptly wrote in “Goodbye to All That,” “one of the mixed blessings of being twenty and twenty-one and even twenty-three is the conviction that nothing like this, all evidence to the contrary notwithstanding, has ever happened to anyone before.”

Except that my present, my actions, were determined by what happened before. I wanted to retrace footsteps, to see if they could lead me where I wanted to go. I was in love with Paris the way Joan Didion was in love with New York; I needed every moment to have meaning, even when the moments passed oh-so-slowly, then all at once.

I subscribed to legends: Shakespeare and Company, the storied Parisian bookstore, and Joan Didion, the storied American writer.

I returned to the library two days later. There was something obscene about leaving a book half-finished. There was something obscene about being a California girl who had never read Didion. There was something obscene about abandoning a dream halfway through.

I finished The Book of Common Prayer on that visit, curled in a chair by the window, hardly noticing the time passing. I wrote my name on the endpapers, to prove that I had been there, and placed the book back on the shelf. I vowed to read more Joan Didion when I returned to California. On subsequent visits, I frequented the library, but never finished another book. On the back page of a Joyce Carol Oates novel, I found a letter from a young woman, writing to anyone who might peruse the library in the future; it felt like a secret between us, two young women aiming to make a mark, any mark.

It turns out it took moving to New York to pick up a Didion book again. I raced through The White Album, then Slouching Toward Bethlehem, procured at McNally Jackson, the SoHo bookstore that already feels like an institution. Joan Didion would approve, I thought as I approached the cash register. I re-read “Goodbye to All That” and tried to enter my favorite lines into my quote book, only to realize that I would have to transcribe the entire essay. That essay in particular is for the young.

Several years later and living in New York, I revisit Didion. I curl up in a chair near a window, preferably on an overcast day, and find myself drawn once again to the page. When I look up, minutes or hours later, I’m no longer in New York or Los Angeles– wherever I am or wherever the narrative is set– I’m back at Shakespeare and Company, looking out onto the Seine.

(Ruminations on Didion and Shakespeare and Company inspired by these two articles in today’s Publisher’s Lunch.)

One Response to “On Reading Joan Didion in Paris”
  1. J’aime beaucoup tes reflexions sur tes voyages et les ecrivains qui te plaisent. Tu devrais faire un recueil de tes ecritures et essayer de les publier car tu ecris tres bien. Gisele

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