Take Five: Paris for Literature Lovers

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Known for its romantic atmosphere and literary luminaries, it’s easy to see why the Greats flocked to Paris. Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Pound, Stein, Sand, Hugo, Proust—the gang’s all here.

If you’ve read A Moveable Feast, you can picture Hemingway at a round-top cafe table working through a short story, or the Boulevard St. Michel of the 1950s, as described in the opening of Elaine Dundy’s The Dud Avocado. While the city’s identity as a literary mecca may be rooted in the past, there’s still plenty for the modern bibliophile to see, from writer-friendly cafes to weekly literary events.

1. Bars and Cafes

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Photo by Lauren Sarazen

From Montparnasse to the Mouffetard, Paris is riddled with literary history, much of which took place in Parisian cafes. Featured in both The Sun Also Rises and The Dud Avocado, Montparnasse’s Le Select still echoes with the faint touch of the 20th century lit crowd’s arty debauchery. A short stroll from Luxembourg Gardens, Le Polidor by Jack Kerouac, Arthur Miller and James Joyce—made its cinematic debut in Woody Allen’s Midnight in Paris as the location for Gil’s serendipitous meeting with Hemingway. In the heart of Hemingway’s Mouffetard, Le Contrescarpe feels like a library with its leather bound tomes and green glass reading lamps. For the literary minded of the modern age, La Belle Hortense’s cozy Marais storefront doubles as both wine bar and Francophone bookshop, as well as host of events.

2. Bookshops
The sixth arrondissement historically formed the center of Parisian publishing and 20th century intellectualism, and it is now an epicenter for Anglophone bookshops. Shakespeare and Company has long reigned supreme over Paris’s bookshop scene. With floor to ceiling shelving and long literary history, S & Co draws significant tourism, so visit in the evenings to avoid crowds. Or, ditch the crowds altogether for a quieter browsing experience at Berkeley Books. A stone’s throw from Luxembourg Gardens, Berkeley is a well-curated secondhand bookshop with occasional events. Its neighbor San Francisco Book Company and the Abbey Bookshop also offer secondhand books in English. Often offering free tea and cake, the Abbey has an impressively large selection, towering floor to ceiling and stretching in all directions. Though, if whiling away an afternoon indoors has little appeal, take a stroll along Seine’s many bouquinistes offering books, posters and tourist mementos.

3. Cemeteries

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Photo by Lauren Sarazen

Paris exhumed its churchyards in favor of the Catacombs in the late 18th century, but there are still three notable necropolises clinging to the city’s edges that were established in the early 19th century. Cimetière Père Lachaise plays host to a steady stream of thanatourism to view famed literary figures—Oscar Wilde, Gertrude Stein, Alice B. Toklas, Moliere, Balzac, Colette, Proust, Richard Wright and Shakespeare and Company’s George Whitman, to name a few. A short walk away from the Montparnasse cafe scene, Simone de Beauvoir, Jean-Paul Sartre, Samuel Beckett, Marguerite Duras, Charles Baudelaire and Guy de Maupassant will be waiting in Cimetière Montparnasse. Perhaps the most picturesque of Parisian cemeteries, Cimetière Montmarte opens up to spectacular views of the city for those willing to make the trek up the butte to pay respects to Alexandre Dumas.

4. Writers Homes Turned Musées
Quietly tucked away in a little neighborhood of the ninth arrondissement, Musée de la Vie Romantique shelters numerous mementos belonging to the eccentric Georges Sand. Known for her novels, flair for wearing men’s clothing, and public affairs, Sand’s belongings are on displaye, including a plaster cast of her right arm. Finish your visit by idling in the small tearoom and rose garden before tumbling back into modern Paris. Similarly situated, Musée Victor Hugo is accessed through the elegant Place de Vosages where Hugo lived for 16 years. Displaying his taste in Chinese decoration, as well as the raised wooden desk where he would write while standing, the museum gives an intimate look at Hugo’s personal life. A trip to the nearby Musée Carnavalet provides bibliophiles with a glimpse into Marcel Proust’s cork-lined bedroom.

5. Literary Events

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Photo via montmartredionysia.com

While much of Paris’s charm lies in its storied history, the City of Light continues to be an active source of inspiration for modern creatives. Mondays and Thursdays are prime for listening to original work by contemporary poets, songwriters and flash fiction aficionados. Start the week off right with Spoken Word Paris Monday nights. Grab a seat on one of the long wooden benches in the basement of Au Chat Noir. Celebrate making it through the week with cheap cocktails and sparkling wit at Paris Lit Up Thursday when participants take to the colorful stage at Belleville’s Culture Rapide. While it’s harder to find literary events geared toward longer forms, Montmartre Dionysia is a great way to get your fix. The Dionysia offers bi-annual English-Language theater and playwriting competitions with loose themes, and opportunities to write, act, direct, volunteer or merely watch.

Lauren Sarazen is a writer, roller skater, and enthusiast of all things vintage. She currently represents the entire non-smoking population of Paris.

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