The Literary Apothecary

Heart bookNot so long ago, I bared my evidently somewhat miserly soul and wrote the Confession of the Thrifty Fictionista. Those of you who have read it will know that allowing myself to wander into a bookstore is a dangerous business, particularly if I am in possession of a credit card (not necessarily mine), cash (even the most trifling amount), or anything that could be used (appropriately or otherwise) to barter for new books.

Even to say that I “wander” in bookstores is not entirely accurate. In truth, it’s a lot more like stalking. I don’t prowl around suburban bookstores disguised in a ghillie suit fashioned from torn out pages of old paperbacks and the occasionally well-placed bookmark, but I do take the mission of tracking down exactly the right book very seriously. It requires rigorous discipline, a keen eye and excellent aim to capture such a book, and this pursuit gives me nearly as much pleasure as devouring the whole volume when I return to my lair…er…my home.

But every now and then, a book creeps up on me, instead — in the best possible way.

Such books do not stalk me the way I stalk them. No. they’re far more flirtatious. Enticing. Alluring. They call me with their covers and beckon with their blurbs until I am sufficiently charmed to forget my usual thrift and self-restraint, and submit to purchasing them, no matter the price. Paris Bookshop

The most recent tome whose wiles proved utterly irresistible to me was Nina George’s beautiful novel The Little Paris Bookshop, the tale of a man named Jean Perdu who runs a bookshop from a barge on the River Seine. Instead of being just a bookseller, however, the main character is a “literary apothecary” whose gift is matching his customers with books that ease their minds and soothe their souls. Rather than allowing them to purchase the books they want, he sells them the books they need. As it says in the novel:

Whenever Monsieur Perdu looked at a book, he did not see it purely in terms of a story, retail price and an essential balm for the soul; he saw freedom on wings of paper.

But Jean Perdu — his name, of course, translates as John Lost — is unable to heal his own wounds, inflicted more than two decades before, until he has the courage to cast off the book barge, Lulu, from the Champs-Élysées harbour and journey south towards Avignon and beyond in search of his long lost Provençal love.

George’s novel is, quite simply, a lovely read: amusing, heartfelt, and poignant.  Rather than being nosebleeingly highbrow literature, it is what I think of as the best sort of book — the kind that you can’t wait to keep reading, but that you don’t want to finish either. It’s well written but eminently accessible, and Simon Pare’s translation from George’s original German is so elegant and lyrical that I was completely unaware that I was not reading the book in its original form.

I was, and remain, grateful that The Little Paris Bookshop crept up on me, and I’m looking forward to the next book that tempts me and works its wondrous magic.  Because reading, as Jean Perdu says, is “an endless journey; a long, indeed never-ending journey that [makes] one more temperate as well as more loving and kind.”

Ahhh….books.  Long may they seduce us.

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