Wednesday, August 02, 2006

Unlikely Reads

Over at Box of Books, Ella posted recently about the process of paring down her library in preparation for a move from California to Dubai. She’s only got room to take twenty-four books with her, and she’s not sure how readily available English-language books will be when she arrives at her destination. Contemplating her situation got me thinking back to past occasions when necessity propelled me toward some rather unlikely reading material.

I’m thinking in particular of the month that I spent in Paris the summer I turned seventeen. I know now that there’s no shortage of English-language bookstores in Paris. But at seventeen, on my first visit to a place where I didn’t speak the language—indeed, on my first visit to a big city—I didn’t have the wherewithal to find them. I settled for scouring the bookstalls along the Seine looking for something, anything, in English to read. In this way, I cobbled together a small library of just three books: Nicholas and Alexandra, Robert Massie’s popular account of the lives of Russia’s last csar and his family; Center Door Fancy, Joan Blondell’s roman à clef about her life in Hollywood; and last (and certainly least), the novelization of the movie Fame. I read very quickly and so read each of these books several times over the course of my four-week stay.

I didn’t walk the streets of Paris in the company of Jean-Paul Sartre or Simone de Beauvoir or Colette or Albert Camus, nor of Ernest Hemingway or James Joyce or Gertrude Stein or Kay Boyle or Djuna Barnes. It wasn’t until a few years later that I developed a fascination with literary Paris in the 1920s. Instead my first impressions of Paris were absurdly intertwined with visions of the Romanovs and Rasputin, of Blondell’s vaudeville stars and Hollywood starlets, and, alas, of the precocious, talented kids from Fame.

On subsequent trips, I shopped at Shakespeare and Company and sipped drinks at Les Deux Magots with a proper appreciation for the history of the place. But that weird literary entourage of my seventeenth summer still inhabits at least a corner of my memories of Paris.

What are some of your most unlikely reads and what circumstances led you to them?


cloudscome said...

Well I was an English major but resisted reading a lot of the classics until I was living in China after college. I was able to borrow or trade with other foreigners and discovered The Road Less Traveled and the Bronte sisters. Also The Mill on the Floss made a big impression on me. I probably never would have read it if I hadn't been stuck at the back of beyond with only the few English books the other foreigners brought me. Believe it or not, I was an English teacher too. I hope I was a good one, for my students sake, in spite the gaps in my reading.

Sherry said...

I was once stuck in a house in the country with no books except for a shelf full of Barbara Cartland romances. I read about five of them and realized that they all had the same plot and about the same characters. So I could say after that experience that I had tried romances and didn't care for them too much.

bloglily said...

Cycling in England, from village to village, with nothing in my panniers except dry clothes, I discovered Mary Wesley at a bookshop in one of the first places we stopped to spend the night. After that, cycling had a rhythm: I'd read one novel and then leave it where we were staying, cycle to the next little village, find a bookshop, get the next novel, and so on for a week. I must have read three or four Mary Wesley novels that way. It was a relief to get to London and be able to stop the cycle, so to speak, of leaving the books behind. I read another few in London and brought those home. Maybe it was fewer than the five I see that adds up to, She's a wonderful writer -- a great example of a woman who started writing later in life and never let up.

Danielle said...

When I lived in Austria there was a Shakespeare and Co that I *loved* to go to. Books were terribly expensive (the english imports), and I couldn't read German well enough to buy from Austrian bookstores. So I settled on a used english language bookstore. I discovered Margaret Atwood (read lots of her work), Rita Mae Brown, read some Stephen Kings (not my usual choice, but you take what you can easily get)--lots of OOP stuff that I wish I now knew the titles of--including one strange/sad one of two teenagers who made a suicide pact (why I remember this is beyond me), and was just ready to move on to Simone de Beauvoir when it was time to come home!! I would love to go back and see the more literary side of Europe!