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?