Looking Back At Les Bouquinistes

I talked with a BBC producer who is putting together a half-hour radio show about les bouquinistes in Paris. He found me via this story, one of the earliest posts on a blind flaneur. I was sad the day it dropped off the bottom of the home page. I thought, maybe no one would ever find or read it again. Not so! Talking about the bouquinistes transported me back to idyllic afternoons strolling on the banks of the Seine.

[Photo by Ms. Modigliani]

I remember the book I held in my hands that day. I remember the feel of its time-warped, water-stained pages. I remember its murky, moldy river smell, call it the book’s bouquet, suggesting years of storage on the banks of the Seine. Had I bought it then, I could feel and smell it now and know it from a thousand other books in my studio. Its touch and bouquet would transport me into the midst of its terroir, several blocks of the Latin Quarter only a stone’s throw from the river, where it was printed and published, sold and re-sold, read and debated, discarded and read again in other hands — for three centuries. Like the fish that got away, it looms ever larger and more mysterious just below the surface of my memory.

It was a 1745 edition of Voltaire. The price was 45 euros. I had as much cash in my pocket, but that seemed exorbitant for a book slowly composting like leaf-mold. Voltaire never meant that much to me. I was hoping to stumble upon an affordable antiquarian volume of Rabelais. Still, 1745 was 1745, and I liked the smell of leaf-mold…

“You don’t need to buy books,” Ms. Modigliani said after snapping the photo. “You don’t need to read them. Just touching books is what you really want.”

She was right. Until then, she’d always been a little dubious about my passion for collecting books. Charitably, she overlooked the impracticality, the apparent futility of a blind man acquiring (and housing) countless printed volumes he could never read. Patiently and generously, she read to me more than a few obscure books over the years. As we made our way through the bookstalls along the Seine, she gamely surveyed the titles for me, translating snippets of this text or that. She almost succumbed to the passion herself as she haggled with bouquinistes on my behalf. Nonetheless, she couldn’t ignore the incongruity that I might pay more for a musty old book than she would spend for chic new shoes. It seemed, well, profligate.

So it was a moment of deep insight and acceptance when Ms. Modigliani said, “Just touching books is what you really want.” I felt understood then, and loved. How could buying any mere physical object compare with that?

I didn’t buy the book. We walked down Quai des Grands-Augustins to the Institut de France, then turned left onto Rue de Seine. There was Voltaire! Chancing upon his statue unexpectedly must have been an omen. I took a picture as if to prove to myself that I truly was a free agent in this situation. Then I heard a cold marble voice mocking me. Maybe it was an oracle from the terroir. “You should have bought the book.”

[Photo by a blind flaneur]

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6 Responses to Looking Back At Les Bouquinistes

  1. Ingamara says:

    C’ est trop beau ! :-)

  2. Mark Willis says:

    Merci beaucoup, Ingamara!

  3. Pingback: Les Bouquinistes and the Enlightenment’s Literary Underground - a blind flaneur

  4. phil says:

    Mark, I heard the BBC programme this morning………22/6/2010. Heard you - it was you, n’est-ce pas? - talking about the ‘bouquet’ of the books….looked you up and found your interesting site. Vive les bouquinistes!

  5. Mark Willis says:

    Yes, Phil, that was me. I knew the show might air this week on Radio 4, but didn’t know when. Thanks for tracking me down!

    After listening to it on the web, I miss Paris all the more:

  6. Pingback: BBC Radio 4: The Paris Bouquinistes - a blind flaneur

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