Michael Silverblatt on the genesis of 'An American Bookworm in Paris'

An American Bookworm in Paris

I neither believe nor remember things that are said to me at parties—and I almost never go to parties. So, when Yann Perreau of the Cultural Services of the French Embassy met me at a party and said he would like to arrange to send me to Paris, I didn’t believe him, and I didn’t remember he’d said it. Besides, I do not like to travel and mostly stay at home.

I did remember the party at the house of Hedi El Kholti, an editor at Semiotext(e), the publishers of a great deal of French Theory and Philosophy (some of which I pretend not to understand and a great deal of which I do not understand). At this party, I remember thinking it might be lovely to visit Paris, a city I have never seen, and to attend the book festival, the Salon du Livre. My thoughts were wistful because I didn’t believe any of it, not a word. I found Yann Perreau pleasant, and I thought he was indulging in pleasantry, party conversation.

Gradually, this Yann Perreau, hitherto a stranger, began to send me travel brochures and books of French fiction and poetry (translated into English; I do not speak French). He would phone and say this and that about my trip to Paris, and I continued to answer noncommittally. Before I knew it, I had my plane tickets and was discussing my schedule.

I was astonished by the beauty of Paris and the generosity and kindness of the writers I encountered there. Paris reawakened an optimism and a belief in culture I didn’t know I still could feel. Whenever I was invited to an apartment, I found it filled with books. Whenever I was invited to converse in a café, I discovered that many Parisians love and believe in their literature in a way many Americans no longer do.

Speaking to a publisher who told me that he publishes books that deserve to be published, that he is indifferent to the audience, I remembered being a young man in New York being told such things. It felt like I was hearing a beautiful song whose words I had not heard in a very long time.

In our series An American Bookworm in Paris, I hope you will be brought to remember a time when ideas seemed magnificent, and the idea of reading every book in the world seemed not only desirable but also necessary.