The first time they saw Paris … our pick of the best non-fiction books on the city

John Baxter
John Baxter We’ll Always Have Paris ‘His knowledge of many great writers’

The pick of French, Canadian, American, Irish and Australian writers who have fallen in love with the city.

Australian author John Baxter moved to Paris in the 1980s and has written several books on the city that combine personal experiences with a great deal of knowledge  built up partly from conducting literary walking tours of the city.

His love of the city and the people who have made it what it is – and what it represents in the global imagination – is obvious.

In his first book, We’ll Always Have Paris: sex and love in the City of Light (2005) he declares that ‘All Paris stories are to some extent stories of love – love requited or unrequited, knowing or innocent, spiritual, intellectual, carnal, doomed,’ and that the ‘love’ that took him to Paris was pretty much a combination of them all. It manages to be both a personal story and one that leads you into the city itself – as with his other books, in which his knowledge of the many great writers, artists and thinkers makes for a pleasant way of learning about them.

If I’m honest, I found that The Most Beautiful Walk in the World: a pedestrian in Paris (2011) took a while to get interesting: the first seven chapters are mainly personal but a bit ‘spun out’ for my taste, and it was with a sense of relief that we got down to Ernest Hemingway in Chapter Eight, and started on the meat of the book.

He’s also published Paris at the End of the World: The City of Light during the Great War (1914-1918) (2014), The Golden Moments of Paris: a guide to the Paris of the 1920s (2014), and Five Nights in Paris: After dark in the City of Light (2015) which gives us five night-time walks around the city’s most famous districts and their associations with famous people as different as Marcel Proust and Josephine Baker.

The biography of a particular little road in Paris you are almost certain to go down if you’re a tourist – the rue de la Huchette – is told in a rather old but lovely book The Last Time I Saw Paris (1942) by American journalist Elliott Paul (1891-1958), which has recently been republished. He first went down the road in 1923 and declared, ‘There I found Paris.’ Well, yes, it’s one side of Paris, though perhaps there now are other sides than the one Elliott Paul found. But it’s historically interesting (and not to be confused with a 2010 book bearing the same title, by Lynne Sheene – a Resistance story set in Paris) .

memoirs of a dutiful daughter
Simone de Beauvoir Memoirs of a Dutiful Daughter ‘One of the most interesting portraits of Paris’

Intellectual life

Novelist, philosopher, political activist and life-long partner of Jean-Paul Sartre, Simone de Beauvoir (1908-1986) has given us one of the most interesting portraits of Paris across changing times in her scrupulously detailed volumes of autobiography, as well as in some of her novels. The four volumes are quite long, but if you like autobiographies they’re a good way to learn a lot about the intellectual life of the city as well as its changing history.

The first volume, Memoirs of a Dutiful Daughter (1958) describes her Parisian childhood and increasingly rebellious youth. The second volume, The Prime of Life (1960) covers the early 1930s, the rise of Fascism, the Occupation and finally the Liberation of Paris in 1944. I found these first two volumes the most relevant to an understanding of the city.

Volumes three and four, Force of Circumstance (1963) and All Said and Done (1972) often move away from Paris as she and Sartre travel the world. The discussions of the various philosophical and political issues of the period are interesting for their own sakes but can be a bit heavy going if you’re just wanting a quick introduction to Paris.

Jeremy Mercer
Jeremy Mercer Books, Baguettes & Bedbugs ‘A tell-all account of Paris’s most famous bookshop’

No book-lover can go to Paris without visiting its most famous bookshop – Shakespeare and Company. Canadian journalist Jeremy Mercer‘s Books, Baguettes and Bedbugs (2005) – also published as Time was Soft There – is a ‘tell all’ account of the time he spent living and working in the legendary establishment run by the extraordinary George Whitman (who died in 2011 at the age of ninety-eight).

The original Shakespeare and Company bookshop, at 12 rue de l’Odéon, was owned by American Sylvia Beach but was forced to close during the Nazi Occupation of Paris. In 1951, thanks to an inheritance from his aunt, American George Whitman opened a bookshop at 37 rue de la Bûcherie (with a view straight across the river to Notre-Dame!) called ‘Le Mistral’.

James Joyce

But in 1958, Sylvia Beach allowed him to adopt the title of her own former bookshop which had been a magnet for so many later-to-be-famous writers – including James Joyce (she was instrumental in the first publication of his Modernist masterpiece Ulysses). George Whitman allowed hard-up young writers to stay in the bookshop in exchange for a couple of hours’ work each day, provided they undertook to read a book per day (they were allowed two days for a long book). George used to do some of the cooking – though his ‘ingredients’ could be a little suspect … (read the book to find out!).

The bookshop, now run by his daughter (called Sylvia, for obvious reasons), continues to thrive, hosting readings and workshops, as well as attracting customers from all over the world. (Every visit I make to Paris has to include a pilgrimage to the shop – not just for the books but for all it stands for.)

If you want to know more about the original ‘Shakespeare and Company’ and the writers associated with it, read Sylvia Beach and the Lost Generation: A History of Literary Paris in the Twenties and Thirties (1983) by Riley Fitch.

Paris bookshops are well worth a visit: there are chains but more quirky and charming independent stores than you’ll find in London or New York. Emilie Elmquist’s piece about the Ten Best Bookshops in Paris on the always invaluable Culture Trip website is definitely worth reading. Most of the bookshops sell English books but exploring their other titles is all part of the immersive Paris experience!

Les Deux Magots
Les Deux Magots, St Germain des Pres

James Joyce and Simone de Beauvoir (nearly always with her companion Jean-Paul Sartre) were just two of the regulars at legendary Les Deux Magots cafe. Simone and Jean-Paul wrote all day there as during wartime it was warmer than their apartments.

Most of artistic Paris of the twentieth century frequented the place, including Albert Camus, Ernest Hemingway and Pablo Picasso, and it’s definitely worth a visit to  feel the ghosts of writers and artists past. See it in all its Art Deco glory in Saint Germain des Pres – and don’t miss its famous old fashioned hot chocolate served in porcelain jugs!

city-lit Paris
city-lit Paris

Heather Reyes is the editor of the acclaimed city-pick urban travel guide series, which includes city-lit Paris, featuring over sixty writers on the city.

She is the author of An Everywhere: a little book about reading (‘a brilliant travel guide to the city of books’ Helen Dunmore) and Bookworms, Dog-Ears & Squashy Big Armchairs: A Book Lover’s Alphabet (Reader’s Digest Book of the Month) and the novels Miranda Road (‘rich, poetic, painterly, wise and tender’ Maggie Gee) and Zade (‘tremendous verve and wit’, Jill Dawson). All the titles are published                                                                                                     by Oxygen Books.


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Writers who fell in love with Paris - our pick of the best non-fiction books on the city
The pick of French, Canadian, American, Irish and Australian writers who have fallen in love with the city.
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Oxygen Books
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Malcolm Burgess and Heather Reyes are the publishers of Oxygen Books' city-pick series, featuring some of the best writing on favourite world cities. These include Berlin, Paris, Amsterdam, Venice, Dublin, London, St Petersburg, Istanbul and New York.

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