Paris Reading List: Books to Read Before a Trip to Paris
I thought it might be nice to post a suggested reading list for Paris – for travelers who want to immerse themselves in the city before arrival, or for Francophiles who can’t be in the City of Lights right now. I thought of a few books I’d include on that list, and then it occurred to me that I should ask the wise travelers I know for their favorite Paris-related books.
I got some great suggestions – some I expected, and some that were complete surprises to me. I’ve collected the best recommendations I got below, along with a few of my own. The people who contributed books to this post are listed at the bottom.
- A Moveable Feast – Ernest Hemingway
From Amazon: “In the preface to A Moveable Feast, Hemingway remarks casually that ‘if the reader prefers, this book may be regarded as fiction’ – and, indeed, fact or fiction, it doesn’t matter, for his slim memoir of Paris in the 1920s is as enchanting as anything made up and has become the stuff of legend.”
>> This was on the must-read lists of several people I heard from, including Eva Holland, Michele Travierso, and Robin Locker. Eva said it’s not just one of her favorite Paris books, it’s “one of my favorite books, full stop,” and Michele said simply, “‘Moveable Feast,’ above all.” So this one clearly comes highly recommended.
- Les Miserables – Victor Hugo
From Amazon: “In this story of the trials of the peasant Jean Valjean–a man unjustly imprisoned, baffled by destiny, and hounded by his nemesis, the magnificently realized, ambiguously malevolent police detective Javert–Hugo achieves the sort of rare imaginative resonance that allows a work of art to transcend its genre.”
>> This French classic was suggested by Chris Carriero and a colleague of mine, Cristina Dima. It’s not for the casual reader, mind you, as the unabridged version (which is reportedly far superior to the abridged version) may take you ages to get through – but it’s an unforgettable story. And then, when you visit Paris, you can pay your respects at Victor Hugo’s tomb in the Pantheon, too!
- My Life in France – Julia Child
From Amazon: “In ‘My Life in France,’ an engaging, nuanced addition to the body of her work, Child was assisted by great-nephew Alex Prud’homme, who allowed Child’s distinctive voice to ring throughout. Child herself worked diligently on the manuscript during the last year of her life. The result is a memoir that brings to life the jocular, grandmotherly guide who introduced so many Americans to the joy of peerless meals conceived and prepared with élan and rich imagination.”
>> Robin Locker had this on the list of some of her favorite memoirs, but it’s this tidbit from an Amazon reviewer that I thought made it sound especially appealing to would-be travelers: “It will remind you of your honeymoon in France (even if you went somewhere else) and inspire you to go again.”
- A Year in the Merde – Stephen Clarke
From Amazon: “Take a self-assured Brit with an eye for the ladies, drop him in the middle of Paris with a tenuous grasp of the language and you have Clarke’s alter ego, Paul West, who combines the gaffes of Bridget Jones with the boldness of James Bond. Hired to oversee the creation of a French chain of British tearooms, Clarke, aka West, spends nine months—the equivalent of a French business year—stumbling his way through office politics à la française. Clarke’s sharp eye for detail and relentless wit make even the most quotidian task seem surreal, from ordering a cup of coffee to picking up a loaf of bread at the boulangerie.” (And if you like this Clarke book, be sure to keep going with the “Merde” series with “In the Merde for Love” and “Merde Happens,” as well as “Talk to the Snail.”)
>> Robin Locker called “A Year in the Merde” “funny, witty fiction.”
- Paris to the Moon – Adam Gopnik
From Amazon: “In 1995 Gopnik was offered the plush assignment of writing the ‘Paris Journals’ for the New Yorker. He spent five years in Paris with his wife, Martha, and son, Luke, writing dispatches now collected here along with previously unpublished journal entries. A self-described ‘comic-sentimental essayist,’ Gopnik chose the romance of Paris in its particulars as his subject. Gopnik falls in unabashed love with what he calls Paris’s commonplace civilization–the cafés, the little shops, the ancient carousel in the park, and the small, intricate experiences that happen in such settings. But Paris can also be a difficult city to love, particularly its pompous and abstract official culture with its parallel paper universe. The tension between these two sides of Paris and the country’s general brooding over the decline of French dominance in the face of globalization (haute couture, cooking, and sex, as well as the economy, are running deficits) form the subtexts for these finely wrought and witty essays.”
>> This is another book that makes Robin Locker’s list of Paris-based memoirs that are worth picking up, and it was also suggested by Gudrun Enger.
- That Summer in Paris – Morley Callaghan
From Amazon: “‘That Summer in Paris,’ as a memoir of Paris in the 20s, is every bit as engaging a book, if more limited in scope, as Hemingway’s ‘A Moveable Feast.’ … The anecdotes he recounts are simply marvelous, and I can’t recommend the book highly enough. Boxing matches with Hemingway, Fitzgerald’s drunken histrionics, a strange evening with Joyce and a phonograph… it’s priceless stuff.”
>> Interestingly, it was Eva Holland who suggested this book and for a similar reason. She said, “I also love ‘That Summer in Paris.’ … Sort of a counterpoint to ‘A Moveable Feast.'”
- Madeline – Ludwig Bemelmans
From Amazon: “Set in picturesque Paris, this tale of a brave little girl’s trip to the hospital is as appealing today as it was in 1940. The combination of spirited heroine, timelessly appealing art, cheerful humor, and rhythmic text makes ‘Madeline’ a perennial favorite with children of all ages.”
>> Gudrun Enger suggested this book, which is especially great if you’re going to be bringing kids to Paris – but can appeal to the child inside all of us.
- The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas – Gertrude Stein
From Amazon: “Autobiography by Gertrude Stein, written as if it were the autobiography of her lifelong companion, Alice B. Toklas. Published in 1933, the work ostensibly contains Toklas’ first-person account not of her own life, but of Stein’s, written from Toklas’s viewpoint and replete with Toklas’ sensibilities, observations, and mannerisms. … The book describes the life that Toklas and Stein lead in Paris, including their at-homes with such artists, literary lions, and intellectuals as Pablo Picasso, Ernest Hemingway, Henri Matisse, and Georges Braque.”
>> My colleague (and Francophile) Julie Blakley suggested this one, saying, “Paris literary ex-pat crowd in the 20s. Fantastic read.”
- The Razor’s Edge – W. Somerset Maugham
From Amazon: “‘The Razor’s Edge’ is a wise and well-written novel about American expatriates in France in the 1920s and ’30s. The characters make different choices about life: one is a ludicrous social snob; another enters a loveless but stable marriage; another opts for degradation and self-destruction; and another seeks enlightenment in India. Every character (and path) is vividly rendered, making it an unforgettable book.”
>> Chris Carriero suggested this book for the list, and while Chris has lived in Rome, Jerusalem, and even Dayton – he currently makes his home in Paris. So I think he knows what he’s talking about.
- A Tale of Two Cities – Charles Dickens
From Amazon: “The period from 1775 – the outbreak of the American Revolution – to 1789 – the storming of the Bastille – is the turbulent setting of this uncharacteristic Dickens novel. It is his only novel that lacks comic relief, is one of only two that are not set in nineteenth-century England and is also unusual in lacking a primary central character. London and Paris are the real protagonists in this tale, much as the cathedral was the ‘hero’ of Hugo’s Notre Dame de Paris. … The result is a complex, involving plot with some of the best narrative writing to be found anywhere, and the recreation of revolutionary Paris is very convincing.”
>> This is another of the books on Chris Carriero’s list, and I must admit I’d forgotten entirely that Paris featured in it. That could be because I was forced to read it in junior high and hated every word of it then (forgive me, I was young and foolish!). I should clearly give it another try.
- This is Paris – Miroslav Sasek
From Amazon: “‘This is Paris,’ first published in 1959, brings Paris, one of the most exciting cities in the world, to life. There are famous buildings, beautiful gardens, cafés, and the Parisians-artists, concierges, flower girls, and even thousands of cats. Take a tour along the banks of the Seine, through the galleries of the Louvre, and to the top of the Eiffel Tower.”
>> This is another kid’s book suggested by Gudrun Enger, and although it was published several decades ago it’s a great introduction to the main sights of Paris. Think of it as a travel guidebook for kids.
- Interview With the Vampire – Anne Rice
From Amazon: “In the now-classic novel ‘Interview with the Vampire,’ Anne Rice refreshed the archetypal vampire myth for a late-20th-century audience. The story is ostensibly a simple one: having suffered a tremendous personal loss, an 18th-century Louisiana plantation owner named Louis Pointe du Lac descends into an alcoholic stupor. At his emotional nadir, he is confronted by Lestat, a charismatic and powerful vampire who chooses Louis to be his fledgling. The two prey on innocents, give their ‘dark gift’ to a young girl, and seek out others of their kind (notably the ancient vampire Armand) in Paris.”
>> As a big fan of Anne Rice myself, I was pleased that someone mentioned this book. Again, it was Chris Carriero – and while I wouldn’t advise skulking around Parisian streets late at night looking for the vampires in the story, it’s definitely a fun read and a different perspective on the city.
- Hunchback of Notre Dame – Victor Hugo
From Amazon: “Victor Hugo never wrote a book titled ‘The Hunchback of Notre Dame.’ Some early translator gave it that name. What Hugo wrote was a book called ‘Notre Dame of Paris’ (in French: ‘Notre Dame de Paris’). This is not a book that is primarily about a hunchback named Quasimodo or a beautiful Gypsy girl named Esmerelda. It is a book narrowly focused on the Cathedral of Notre Dame situated on the Ile de la Cite in the center of Paris and, more broadly, on the 15th century city of Paris. This was a Paris where public executions or any form of punishment involving public humiliation were the highest forms of entertainment and drew the kinds of crowds that we would see at a major sports event today.”
>> Another Victor Hugo classic, this book is one to read if you’re drawn to the famous Notre Dame Cathedral on the Ile de la Cite – and not necessarily if you liked the cartoon version of the abridged story!
- The Belly of Paris – Emile Zola
From Amazon: “‘The Belly of Paris’ is Les Halles centrales, the enormous (21-acre) market complex built by Baron Haussmann in the 1850s. Into it flowed great rivers of vegetables, cheeses, butter, fish and meats, and out of it sewers of blood and putrefaction. In this third volume of the Rougon-Macquart series, available in the U.S. for the first time, Zola describes both with typical hypnotic exhaustiveness.”
>> With a website called “Food in Rome,” it shouldn’t be surprising that the Paris book suggestion they offered was about the city’s most famous market.
- Petite Anglaise – Catherine Sanderson
From Amazon: “She has a job in Paris, the city of her dreams, a handsome Frenchman, a beautiful bilingual toddler, and a charming apartment with breathtaking views. So why does Catherine Sanderson feel that her life is coming apart? Stuck in a relationship quickly losing its heat, overwhelmed by the burdens of motherhood, and restless in a dead-end administrative job, Catherine reads an article about starting an online diary and on a slow day at work—voilà—Petite Anglaise is born.”
>> This is one of Robin Locker’s favorites. She says, “Catherine Sanderson has a way of making the City of Light come alive in her writing.”
- Tropic of Cancer – Henry Miller
From Amazon: “Miller’s once controversial story that ended up altering United States censorship laws tells of a young writer and his pals in Paris during the Great Depression. Part memoir, part fictional tale, Miller’s prose is a complex mix that demands the reader’s utmost attention.”
>> James Martin, who I know more as an Italophile, replied to my question with, “Paris? Anything by Henry Miller, singlehandedly responsible for my travel/writing lust.”
- Almost French: Love and a New Life in Paris – Sarah Turnbull
From Amazon: “A bestseller in Turnbull’s native Australia, this cute firsthand look at the hardships of settling into a city infamously chilly to outsiders gives a glimpse of the true nature of Parisians and daily life in their gorgeous city. Though Turnbull tells readers less about love than new life, it was in falling for a Frenchman that the journalist found herself moving to Paris, for a few months that stretched into years.”
>> Another recommendation from Robin Locker, who says, “Stories about trying to get work as a journalist (her trade) in France, struggling with the language barrier, attempting to understand and fit in with her boyfriend’s life and friends, making her own friends, and making sense of the cultural differences while living in both the country and right in Paris, are told with wit and humor.”
- Queen of France: A Biography of Marie Antoinette – Andre Castelot
From Amazon: “Andre Castelot, a distinguished French scholar and historian, has in this book written one of the most brilliant of recent biographies, which makes Marie Antoinette, from her arrival in France to the day she rode to her death in a cart, amazingly alive for the reader. We are carried from the intimate chambers of the young queen, through the incredible splendor and shocking discomfort of life at Court, to the awesome sounds of the rising mob, the last desperate flights, and the ultimate imprisonment and execution.”
>> My friend Annie Freccero suggested this book, with the caveat that you actually read this and not watch “the stupid movie.”
- Me Talk Pretty One Day – David Sedaris
From Amazon: “David Sedaris became a star autobiographer on public radio, onstage in New York, and on bestseller lists, mostly on the strength of ‘SantaLand Diaries,’ a scathing, hilarious account of his stint as a Christmas elf at Macy’s. Sedaris’s caustic gift has not deserted him in his fourth book, which mines poignant comedy from his peculiar childhood in North Carolina, his bizarre career path, and his move with his lover to France. Though his anarchic inclination to digress is his glory, Sedaris does have a theme in these reminiscences: the inability of humans to communicate. The title is his rendition in transliterated English of how he and his fellow students of French in Paris mangle the Gallic language.”
>> While not entirely about Paris, this is a must-read for anyone who has illusions of speaking fluent French but can’t quite get there yet. This is a personal favorite, and it’s hysterical. The audio-book, read by Sedaris himself, is even better.
- Suite Francaise – Irene Nemirovsky
From Amazon: “This extraordinary work of fiction about the German occupation of France is embedded in a real story as gripping and complex as the invented one. Composed in 1941-42 by an accomplished writer who had published several well-received novels, ‘Suite Française,’ her last work, was written under the tremendous pressure of a constant danger that was to catch up with her and kill her before she had finished.”
>> This is another suggestion from Annie Freccero, who calls it “heartbreaking and beautiful, and partially set in Paris.”
- Weekend in Paris – Robyn Sisman
From Amazon: “Molly Clearwater had always wanted to escape the confines of her small-town upbringing to make a splash as a career woman in London. But somehow, working as a low-level assistant for the boorish Malcolm Figg wasn’t nearly as fulfilling as she had hoped-until Malcolm offered her a “perk”-a free weekend business trip to Paris. She’s ecstatic until she discovers that Malcolm’s idea of ‘business’ isn’t exactly the same as hers. Horrified, Molly storms out of the office. With nothing else to lose, she impulsively boards a train to Paris, intent on treating herself to a long weekend in the City of Light.”
>> Robin Locker said that this book is “lite fluff fiction, chick-lit, but a cute little love story in Paris.” And who doesn’t love a piece of fluff every now and then? Especially if it’s set in Paris?
- Seven Ages of Paris – Alistair Horne
From Amazon: “London is male, New York sexually ambivalent, writes Horne. But ‘has any sensible person ever doubted that Paris is fundamentally a woman?’ The renowned historian (The Fall of Paris, etc.) thus conceives of his history of the city of lights as ‘linked biographical essays, depicting seven ages… in the long, exciting life of a sexy and beautiful, but also turbulent, troublesome and sometimes excessively violent woman.'”
>> It might be a history book, but Robin Locker thinks it’s definitely interesting and worth reading.
- Americans in Paris: A Literary Anthology – Adam Gopnik
From Amazon: “From the earliest years of the American republic, Paris has provoked an extraordinary American literary response. An almost inevitable destination for writers and thinkers, Paris has been many things to many Americans: a tradition-bound bastion of the old world of Europe; a hotbed of revolutionary ideologies in politics and art; and a space in which to cultivate an openness to life and love thought impossible at home. Including stories, letters, memoirs, and journalism, Americans in Paris distills three centuries of vigorous, glittering, and powerfully emotional writing about the place that Henry James called ‘the most brilliant city in the world.'”
>> Julie Blakley said this anthology was another of her favorite books about Paris.
Thanks to the following people for their contributions to this list:
Julie Blakley – @WhyGoFrance on Twitter, and France Travel Guide writer
Chris Carriero – @iKangaroo on Twitter, and iKangaroo founder
Cristina Dima – @axxyutza on Twitter, and Greece Travel Guide writer
Gudrun Enger – @kitchengirl on Twitter, and Kitchen Gadget Girl blog
Food in Rome – @foodinrome in Twitter, and Food in Rome website
Annie Freccero – Head in Knots blog
Eva Holland – @evaholland on Twitter, and freelance writer
Robin Locker – @MyMelange on Twitter, and My Melange blog
James Martin – @wanderingitaly on Twitter, and Wandering Italy website
Michele Travierso – @michetravi on Twitter
If your favorite Paris book didn’t make the list, leave a comment with your recommendations. And for some other French-inspired reading, check out Robin Locker’s list of some of her favorite French memoirs.
original photo by moriza