The act of reading ... begins on a flat surface, counter or page, and then gets stirred and chopped and blended until what we make, in the end, is a dish, or story, all our own.
— Adam Gopnik

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July 17, 2018

At the bibliothèque


A little while later I visited the new Bibliothèque Nationale, the big -- the unbelievably vertigo-inspiringly enormous -- library, out at the other end of the quai in the Thirteenth. It seems to have been designed by a committee made up of Michel Foucault, Jacques Tati, and the production designer of The Man from U.N.C.L.E. The whole thing is set up, way up, on a wooden platform the size of six or seven football fields, high up off the street. There is an unbelievably steep stairs, leading up to this plateau... Then there are four glass skyscrapers. each one set at one of the corners of the platform, and all very handsome, in a kind of early-sixties ... way. The vast space has been planked out with teak boards, to make it 'warmer,' but this just makes it more slippery. They have had to put down cheap-looking runners on a sticky backing, to keep people from breaking legs. (Apparently there were quite a few victims early on.)
My delightful morning-commute reading only got better ...
Downstairs, you wait at the accueil for your card. This is done with the usual French functionary hospitality:  Who are you. what do you want, what makes you think, etc.? Finally, after an hour, you may get a card., First you visit the desk of one severely disciplinary young lady, who takes your coordinates and enters them into the single-overseeing computer system that was intended as the glory of the place. You are now sent to another young women, who reenters and corrects all the information that the first girl entered...
      When you at last have your card, you begin your descent into the vast underground caverns, the sous-sol, where the reading rooms are. (The books are, famously, all up in the towers.) First you go to a kind of master computer and enter your request for a seat.  The computer lets you know that there is no room for you in L, M, and disdainfully awards you your number, the new you:  N-51. ...
      You insert your card into a turnstile:  it takes its time and then lets you pass into tiny space with a spiked metal floor, which leads in turn toward two immense two-story-high brushed metal doors. There is no signage or any indication of where you are going -- because where you are going is into another turnstile, another spiked metal floor, and another pair of vast metal doors. Windows and sunlight have been left far behind. Once you are through these, you can get on an escalator for a ten-story descent into the basement; there are concrete pillars around the escalators, winsomely decorated with iron-mesh hangings...
and better...
When you come to the end of the escalator, there are two more turnstiles and two more windowless metal doors to pass through. Now you are into the entrance to the reading rooms, and you see that they are built around a grass court, which opens to the sky, high high above. In the glassed-in court is a bizarre amenity, a garden -- no, a small forest of immense trees, pines and evergreens mostly, all planted close together in tight rows, in the shallow green center block of grass. ... The trees are so shallowly rooted -- or else, according to other people, the wind sweeping down from above, is so strong -- that they all have to be chained to the concrete floor. ...
      Step up three or four shallow steps from the glass wall enclosing the trees and wires -- it is absolutely forbidden, by the way, for anyone to pass through the seamless glass walls and into the garden -- and you are in the main reading room, dark, gloomy and at once terrifyingly vast without being compensatingly magnificent. It is just one huge horizontal space, broken by discreet letter indicators telling you that you have passed from N to M and onward. Searching, at last you find your seat, N-51, which is simply  a single space at a vast table with several hundred such spots marked, You feel more like an ant than an archivist.
from Paris to the Moon, by Adam Gopnik

Paris is so romantic, n'est-ce pas?  Of course, after spending all morning imagining all of this horribleness, I had to Google some pictures while I was eating my sandwich.  It's definitely more fun to imagine it than to look at the real thing  :)






2 comments:

JaneGS said...

I recently read Paris to the Moon and laughed out loud during this part. Loved it!

Terra said...

I have that book, Paris to the Moon, and haven't read it yet. I am a librarian and lived in Paris for six months so I aim to read it eventually.

Thank you for visiting!

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