by Valeria Luiselli, September 28, 2016
(translated by Louis S. Bedrock)
My daughter and I returned to Paris under the blazing sun of July. We were coming from Burgundy, where I had written a sad, angry note for this column, after the mass murder in Nice, about how our cultural baggage is obsolete and doesn't help us face the horror of our times; about how the myth of Paris had died in our arms. But I was wrong about one thing. Because, although culture in the abstract no longer anchors us to this complex, fucked-up world, there do in fact remain places--a few--from which we can rethink our role in the world and imagine alternate ways of organizing life.
Some readers will be familiar with the name of Sylvia Beach, founder of the bookstore Shakespeare and Company, which opened in 1909 and lasted until the Nazi occupation of Paris in 1941. Beach was the first editor of Ulysses when all the other editors had rejected the novel of Joyce; she made space in her bookstore for the aspiring writers of the time like Fitzgerald, Hemingway, and the poet H.D. Beach, the bookseller, did more than open a bookstore: she founded a world for The Lost Generation.
After the war, the bookstore was closed for six more years until George Whitman renewed the project in 1951. Carrying forward the communitarian spirit of his mentor to another level, between 1951 and 2011 he provided shelter to more than 30,000 writers and young readers who, in exchange for a bed, cleaned, cooked, organized and kept alive the bookshelves. Among his guests were Allen Ginsberg and Ferlinghetti. The bookseller Whitman rebuilt the world that the war destroyed and he furnished it with beds.
When he died, his daughter Sylvia Whitman took up and reinvented the tradition. Both ethereal and leaden, she goes up and down the stairs all day carrying plies of books; she's opened a cafe next door, organizes readings incessantly, and her next project is to rehabilitate a house in the country and convert it into a " book farm" where writers and readers can spend a period of time working the land and working on paragraphs. It is clear that if there are still people of vision in the world capable of combating the evil of the century, they are the booksellers.
I am writing this piece in the apartment above Shakespeare and Company, which Sylvia offered to us for as long as we like in exchange for writing something together and donating it to the bookstore's archives. My daughter sleeps by my side, and here among the bookshelves, the personal library of Simone Beauvoir surrounds us. Before she fell asleep, my daughter said to me,
”Mama, we're in a building made of books.”
She is right. And perhaps if there were more buildings like this, it would be easier to reinvent the world.