Not only am I a huge book nerd, who devours every piece of print in sight, I’m an even bigger history nerd, and being in Paris gave me a great opportunity to read up on, and then visit, a lot of Paris’ history. I definitely suggest reading a bit more about Paris because what the media says and what actually happened are not the same. For instance who knew the French, who hate to be scared, and hate anything scary, had a history of killing thousands of people every century? And this wasn’t just during the Terror, Paris has always been a violent city. I have no idea where the “City of Love” propaganda came from. It should be the City of Blood or the City of Misery since everyone who has ever lived in Paris went through some terribly horrific event or other.
I’m making this list of some books on Paris, not all of the books I have read on Paris and France, because a few of them (the Riviera Set for instance) I hated. I enjoyed learning more about Paris, and I wish I could remember all of the books I’ve read. I gave a bunch of my recommended readings to my ex Christian Kinnersley, and he even bought me a few one year when he felt bad about something and agreed to give me carte blanche at Amazon, but unfortunately I have a terrible memory so it might take me some time to remember them all. For those that aren’t into history, books, or history books, I like a cheeky author who makes the material fun so you won’t find many stuffy books on this list.
Shocking Paris by Stanley Meisler
This one I enjoyed partially because I lived in the area featured in the book at the time. It turns out Modigliani lived, and had his studio, on the street next to mine near Observatoire. This book introduced me to Soutine, who I became a big admirer of. I visited the Orangerie after finishing this so I could see his work. They have a little capsule collection in the beginning of the museum so definitely plan a trip there in conjunction with this book.
Paris: The Secret History by Andrew Hussey
I enjoyed this book because it was a condensed version of some of the lesser known events in Paris’ history. The author makes the material fun to read and that in turn makes learning it enjoyable. There were a lot of interesting facts and I highly recommend giving this a go.
The Other Paris by Luc Sante
I actually found this book at the dollar store in America. It's an interesting book in that it waxes poetic about a Paris that hasn't existed for a long while. I enjoyed it because it has many historical photos, and I love seeing the landscape change. The author is obsessed with this 'other Paris' and how so many things have changed. In some way I can see why. As someone who has lived in both wealthy neighborhoods, and the 'other Paris', there is a pretentiousness that exists in one and not the other. Belleville, Gambetta, and Place des Fetes are charming, unaffected, and feel more real. You don't get that in Solferino, La Tour Maubourg or Miromesnil. That Paris is like a Disney version of Paris, and while it's nice to visit from time, it doesn’t feel real.
I would suggest this book for someone who already knows Paris, as there is a lot of name dropping of streets and areas. If you've spent your life cloistered at Kleber for instance, you won't know a lot of what the author talks about. As someone who has lived in 14 districts sometimes I even had to check where a street he named was. I want the author to make a new updated version of the book so he can touch on the now empty homes and relative hotel-ification of the Marais, Saint Germain, and Champs Elysees.
The Bettencourt Affair by Tom Sancton
This wasn’t my favorite book, mostly because I abhor obscene wealth and the people who whinge about having it, but I recommend this one for an understanding of French law. There was a lot in here I did not know, and for that I found this book interesting. That said I no longer buy or support any L’Oréal products.
The Continual Pilgrimage: American Writer’s in Paris 1944-1960 by Christopher Sawyer-Lauçanno
Who doesn’t love Fitzgerald, and the Lost Generation? I empathized with Gil in ‘Midnight in Paris’ because how amazing would it be to experience that? But everyone kind of forgets that Paris was a pilgrimage for many black American artists too. This book wasn’t cheekily written but I enjoyed it none the less. I even made Christian take it back to London so I would always have it on my shelf (he has never returned my belongings and still has an entire suitcase full of my lingerie). I recommend it to anyone interested in the story behind literature, and the writer’s who called Paris home.
The Most Dangerous Book: The Battle for James Joyce’s Ulysses by Kevin Birmingham
I am not a huge Joyce fan. He seemed like a huge asshole with a superiority complex and a disdain for women. I enjoy historical love letters and every time I think of him I think of his love letters, which mostly mention his interest in scat, which I know is a weird thing to associate him with but it was his kink. I added this book to the list because Paris had a huge hand in helping Ulysses get published, and there’s a lot there about Sylvia Beach and Shakespeare and Co. Reading about Joyce and all of his syphilis ailments actually kind of made me sick, but the battle to get Ulysses made was a long and interesting one. I had no idea how bad censorship was. Even if you don’t enjoy an artist’s work, it’s not anyone’s place to say what can and cannot be created, and this book is reminder of how far we’ve come as a society. There were so many creative ways Joyce got around it, and even if I didn’t like him as a person, I respect the battle he fought.
Metro Stop Paris by Gregor Dallas
Paris Reborn: Napoleon III, Baron Haussmann, and the Quest to Build a Modern City by Stephane Kirkland
I would again suggest this for someone who knows the streets of Paris. For instance there was talk of all of the avenues being built, and the author mentions avenues being built from Gare du Nord to the Louvre for instance, and I have no idea what they were talking about. The main roads to Gare du Nord are Magenta and La Fayette, and none of them lead to the Louvre. He also mentions a road not being built from the Pantheon straight through to the south, but that road is rue Saint-Jacques. Another gripe I had with this book was the number of quotes. If 1/4 of your book is quotes from other people, did you even write it?
You don’t necessarily have to have lived and walked these roads like I did, but having an understanding of a map of Paris would help. Dork alert: I love maps, especially historical maps that show how a city changes. I study maps whenever I move to a new city. I don’t know why, it’s just one of those weird quirks I have. That’s probably why I enjoyed this book. I dated an architect for a while, who took me to a Haussmann exhibit for one of our dates at the Arsenal Pavilion, and I LOVED it. He was probably one of the few guys I dated who went out of his way to take me to places he knew I’d like. I hate that a lot of history had to be torn down to make this “new” Paris, but Haussmann created the classic Paris we’ve come to love, and it was interesting to know that builder’s basically ordered from an IKEA catalog (the catalogs were on display). I recommend this book for anyone who is interested in architecture, history, and city planning as much as I am. You won’t be let down.
Bohemian Paris: Picasso, Modigliani, Matisse and the Birth of Modern Art by Dan Franck
This book took a while to get into. The writer is French so he gets long winded in his writing, so for that it's not my favorite, but once you realize the writer is telling the artist’s life through a series of stories it gets better. I’m not sure how much is rooted in fact, or how much is artistic license, but I enjoyed the storytelling. It made the artist’s seem much more real than the usual biography. I also enjoyed old Paris. Today’s Paris, much like Manhattan and London, is made for, and enjoyed by the rich, but these artists lived in virtual poverty. They lived hand to mouth, barely able to feed themselves for days at a time, and were able to enjoy Paris. I don't think you can experience that Paris anymore. As someone who spent my Parisian life much like Max Jacob, you’ll be hard pressed to enjoy Paris the way they did. You can't find "cheap" restaurants or a place to enjoy yourself that doesn't cost money. If Picasso were alive today he and his friend's would be the men that sit in the median on Boulevard de Rouchechouart and day drink. Or perhaps I lived Picasso's life more than I realized. Instead of sitting in cafes it was the Seine or my sidewalk on Androuet, Square Trousseau, or Luxembourg Gardens.
1000 Years of Annoying the French by Stephen Clarke
Clarke is one of those author’s that writes a lot of books on France. “A Year in the Merde” being his most famous. He takes a cheeky swipe at the French and who doesn’t enjoy that? I enjoyed this one because it focuses on history (whereas YITM is fiction). It’s not a concise history but it lays out the important bits.
Paris By Metro by Arnold Delaney
I wouldn’t necessarily put this book on the list for any other purpose than for those who really know nothing about the Paris Metro. It’s a essentially a short guidebook. 1) it’s a bit out of date, and some of the station names have altered, b) some of the facts are a bit wrong, for instance there wasn’t a Monsieur Pereire, they were two brothers, bankers, famous for bankrolling the second empire, 3) it’s very, very short. However the book is interesting for the fact that it tells a little factoid about each metro station, some of which I did not know (I always wondered why we stopped for so long at Kléber). If you’re interested in brief history this is something to breeze through.
I’m happy to admit that I have been to every metro stop in Paris. Does that solidify my Parisian credentials? My friend Colin and I were once so bored we were going to do the entire metro in one day to see how long it would take. In the end we decided being underground and sitting for that amount of time would be akin to torture. Plus in Paris you cannot ride the entire metro on just one ticket. Some of the stops require you to get out and go back in (like at Bobigny). But it just so happened that through all of my various jobs, and places I’ve lived, and men I’ve dated, and people I’ve met, I ended up going to, or riding past, every single stop on this list (including some of the RER ones). and as much as I complained about RATP, the French actually have a pretty good public transportation service.
Paris on the Brink by Mary McAuliffe
I’m not really sure about recommending this book. I found it boring in parts, and the storytelling to be all over the place. The only reason I would recommend it is because it gives anecdotal tellings of the famous people of Paris during the 30’s, which gives you a chance to seek out better books on them if you feel inclined.
What made this bad in my eyes is that the author blends so much of the 1920’s into her stories, that it’s almost strange to not just omit “of the 30’s” altogether. If you want more anecdotes regarding Henry Miller for instance, who I came away feeling closer to (I actually stayed for a time on Villa Seurat), although my ex isn’t interesting enough to write a whole book about, but maybe there’s some material there... or Chanel, Bloom, or any of the other famous faces of Paris during that era, perhaps give this book a go. Just don’t hold out any hope of reading a coherent plot line. It’s all over the place and only seems to stay on a year by year path a third of the way in. The fact checking is a bit suspicious as well. For instance Anaïs Nin was thought to have aborted Henry Miller’s baby by her own account, as told in her extensive journals, so I don’t know why the author states that she had a “still born baby born 3 months early”.
The Stranger by Albert Camus
French required reading for me (in American school) was Voltaire, Rousseau, Racine, Sartre, Molière, Proust, Hugo, Baudelaire, you know, the usual suspects. And actually Guy de Maupassant was required in American elementary school (“The Necklace” was supposed to teach us about pride and honesty), but so far, for French schoolchildren, the only required reading I saw was Molière. Which is understandable. We read Shakespeare, they read Molière. But if you want to fit in I’m going to suggest you read L’Etranger because you will find this book on every Paris shelf. I don’t know if they require it in university, and that’s why everyone has a copy, but you’ll want to peruse it. And to be fair it is a good story that anyone who has ever felt alienation and loneliness can identify with. It’s up there with Catcher in the Rye and Crime and Punishment. If you didn’t like either of those you won’t enjoy this.