Last month I went to a public library in Paris for the first time in a couple years. With a neighborhood branch two blocks away from my apartment, it’s hard to find an excuse for not going, even for a chronic excuse-maker like me. And with 58 public libraries spread out over the 20 arrondissements offering over 3.5 million different sorts of printed materials and a free library card, no excuse flies very far.
I could blame it on Google or Kindle, that with all their efficiency and speed, there’s no need to go further than my desk for research, reading or what I indulge in most: mindless site-cruising, the “I’m Feeling Lucky” button a tempting trigger. Borges wrote, “I have always imagined that paradise will be a kind of library,” and he may have imagined it to be something like La Bibliothèque Mazarine, housed in the same 17th-century grand sandstone building as the Académie française and the renowned Institut de France. Shadows slant as you walk under stone arches leading to a small spiral staircase that takes you to the library on the second floor.
La Bibliothèque Mazarine faces the Seine on the Left Bank and the crowded Pont des Arts folds out just in front with its buskers, love padlocks (couples mark their initials on a lock, fasten it to the railing and toss the key into the river), and improvised picnics (a bottle of white, a bottle of red, a couple friends and a basket of bread). It is France’s oldest public library and was the personal collection of Cardinal Mazarin, a central member of Louis XIV’s cortege, who opened it to the public in 1643.
I went with a small group of writing students, high schoolers from all over the States. We had the rare opportunity to be shown some books from their remarkable collection—a fifteenth-century illuminated manuscript with gem-like blues and perfect black, spiky script, correspondence between poet Paul Verlaine and a young Marcel Proust, a large book of cream-colored maps of the United States before anything was united. Kelly, Talli, Kinsey, Christina, Tatiana, Erin and I didn’t have much to say in the library—too exciting and so very French.
I’d forgotten the appetite you can have just by walking into a library and smelling that potent combination of paper, dust and possibility. The Mazarine has a particular sweet smell of dried herbs, velvety parchment and aged Moroccan leather—it’s intoxicating (a word that seems to come up a lot in this column).
The morning we went, there were eight or nine patrons working at long wooden tables with elaborately carved feet (the tables, not the patrons). Some come regularly to write, others visit now and then. For 12 euros ($15.00) per year, anyone can come and consult much of the antiquarian collection or just come and sit and drink in the atmosphere, like we did, with bookshelves reaching two-stories high and giving you vertigo, and on the table in front of you, opened: a little block of god, a book.
Heather Hartley is Paris editor at Tin House. She’s the author of Knock Knock, released by Carnegie Mellon University Press. Her poems and essays have appeared in or on PBS NewsHour, The Guardian, and elsewhere. She has been Co-Director of the Shakespeare and Company Bookshop literary festival and lives in Paris.