Parisian Online

Do you like your books to be emotional roller coasters? Or perhaps you prefer an evenhanded approach? I’m a night-time reader who aims to distract her brain from the ups and downs of the day; roller coasters are banned.

After those rather unpleasant, and so very masculine, transits across the United States in On The Road, I’ve just finished a book by a female author who wrote about her experiences writing books during the 1970s and 80s – Deirdre Bair’s Parisian Lives.

Reading is a physical act. I like to know how the book will feel.

In a book store, I would pick up the book, browse a few pages, check the size of the text and make sure there’s not too much dialogue. I’ve heard some people even like to know how a book smells.

Usually, I buy books at the nearest bookstore, about an hour up the road in a neighbouring town that’s large enough to still have a book store. Unfortunately, months of travel restrictions and an increasing sense of deprivation and desperation forced me to risk an online order. I found a recommendation via my favourite (and as yet only) podcasters (Chat10Looks3).

In the advertisement, the book cover is pink. A bluish pink because my laptop screen has a bluish tinge. The cover and a short blurb, and the recommendation, are all I have to go on.

Multiple emails arrive tracking the progress of my purchase which culminates in the sound of squeaking brakes as the postie pulls up at my gate.

I bounce out the door and the postman … it’s the one with the ginger beard, I don’t know why I noticed that … passes across a white, shiny, very plastic package. The bubble wrap is obvious as I take it from his hand.

“I’ve been looking forward to this, thank you,” I say loudly with a broad grin, hoping to get my appreciative message across above the noise of the engine.

There are no stamps, disappointingly. There is no colour until the dusky pink emerges.

To make the book last as long as possible, I decide on one chapter per night. This means I can make it last 40 nights before I have to worry about finding the next book.

But I start to worry four chapters in. There’s an overtly positive note to the last line of this chapter. If past experience is to be repeated, there is going to be a disaster in the next chapter. It’s not the best way to drift off to sleep. I remember having this problem with that Anne Summers book.

The next night reveals my fears to be unfounded. There is an evenness to the chapters that makes for relaxing reading.

That’s a testament to the author because Parisian Lives does contain plenty of highs and lows. It is a book about the serious issues that arise when a woman tackles a big “manly” subject, at a time when that was seriously frowned upon and when, if you wanted an academic career (regardless of your gender), you didn’t dare write a biography (no matter how impressively researched the book might be). There was so much social compartmentalisation back in the 1970s.

(Compartmentalisation – such a big word for dividing things into smaller bits!)

The corners are frayed, the spine is wrinkled and, unexpectedly, a bit pushed out of shape.

It hasn’t been 40 nights because I read until sufficiently sleepy regardless of where the chapter ends. Paragraphs were skipped when densely populated with names of people I didn’t know, and French locations and phrases were glossed over with just a hint of an accent plucking a few letters from the incomprehensible.

Does this mean I’ve wasted this book? Have I missed out on the benefits I could have draw from Bair’s experience? Perhaps, but not entirely.

I was struck by the amount of physical and emotional effort Bair put into all the projects she tackled. And it draws me back to those times I accomplished something I considered noteworthy and reminds me of the necessary effort needed above and beyond a routine day.

It’s a timely reminder as I embark on some online study in the hope of retraining for a post-covid, or even a continuing-covid, world.

Opening at a random page …

“The end of my two months in Paris was fast approaching, and the pleasant days of setting my own schedule would soon be over. I dreaded having to return to all the intrusions upon my book. … That night, while plotting how many interviews I could fit into the time when Beauvoir would be in Biarritz, I made a list of all the things other people expected me to do in my professional life. It was a long one, and at the end I felt close to hopeless about how I was going to write this book and where the money, never mind the time, would come from.

“But counting the current one, I still had three weeks in Paris, and I decided to make the most of them.”

Making the most of them.


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