Books tell stories, but sometimes the books themselves are the story.
I was sitting at a bar with my friend Shannon. She has recently arrived in Paris to live and is on the same track as myself: Reading a bunch of books about Paris. It’s a delight to read stories about the place you’re in so you can exclaim mid-sentence, “I know! It is JUST. LIKE. THAT.” I do that a lot with The Sweet Life in Paris by David Lebowitz.
Shannon was recommending a book called Memoirs of Montparnasse by John Glassco. He was writing in Paris in 1920 around the same time as Hemingway. I wrote the title in a margin of my notebook and soon forgot about it.
Forgetting the title has nothing to do with the wine we were drinking.
Weeks later, I’m waltzing into Shakespeare & Company. This bookshop is a new and used bookstore, which means you can find anything in any manner of condition. Often the store receives loads of used books that pile up in the corners, making navigating politely around other patrons impossible. There is usually a two-step dance and a contorting of the spine to shimmy around each other. There is also the soft French “pardon” or the loud English “ExCUUUUSE MEEEE.”
While I was leaning into a shelve to let someone pass behind, I nearly tripped over one of these piles of used books. On the top:
I recognized the title and consulted the note in the margin of my journal. MATCH! I tossed the cashier a fiver and was off to my local tabac shop to begin my new old book. Note: Tabac shops have fantastic wonderful cafés hidden in the back. It’s not the first time I hid back there to read a book.
Used books may have water damage, they may be yellow and torn from age, but oh don’t they make you wonder about the people who have read these book before? Who had their paws all over this book? What were they thinking? What was their life like?
My previous owner:
Greetings Richard F. Hodges.
As I was reading the book, I notice I wasn’t approving of the notes in the margins left by Richard F. Hodges. They were mean-spirited notes, notes from someone who probably laughs when you fall on the street even though you have new shoes and you have to get used to them. True story.
As I read, I became enraged at Richard F. Hodges. Instead of exclaiming,”I know! It is JUST. LIKE. THAT.” I would exclaim, “Why are you being mean Richard F. Hodges?” I had a seething toward Richard F. Hodges. I even Googled him to see if he wrote a book on Historic Hemingway Slams or Why I’m A Literary Asshole. I found a Richard F. Hodges on Facebook. He has not accepted my friend request. Yet.
Oh I wish I could talk to Richard F. Hodges and explain a few things. How Glassco was a rich kid from Montreal traipsing around Paris on daddy’s dime, looking for liquor and ladies. How Hemingway had arrived in Paris after fighting a war. How he was traisping around Paris on his own dime, looking for liquor and trying to avoid the ladies. How these differences change the writing. How isn’t not about Glassco being good and Hemingway being bad. How they are different because of who they were when they arrived in Paris. How it matters that Richard F. Hodges knows this.
I wanted to slam Richard F. Hodges.
Instead, I had to simply argue in silence with the chicken scratches of a reader from 1990 about a book written in 1920. I did so by underlying other, more brilliant passages, than just those in which Hemingway was slammed. Places where Glassco wrote kind and lovely things about others. I’ll be taking my book BACK to Shakespeare & Company so they can sell it to another reader in 20 years who will likely agree with ME.
Sweet revenge will be mine.