When you are a foreigner in a foreign land, sometimes it is nice to make a break for the familiar. For me, the American Library in Paris provides the homey haven I occasionally need.
As the largest English-language lending library on the European continent, it has enough books, magazines and media and enough of an Anglo-feel to sooth my occasional American longings.
It also has quite an interesting history (retold here thanks to their informative website) beginning in the final years of WWI when hundreds of American libraries launched a massive project to send books to the doughboys fighting in the trenches (accumulating in nearly a million and a half books by the end of the war). As the website says:
“When the American Library in Paris was founded in 1920, its initial collection was composed of those wartime books. With the motto: Atrum post bellum, ex libris lux: After the darkness of war, the light of books, its charter promised to bring the best of American literature and culture, and library science, to readers in France.
Among the first trustees of the Library was the expatriate American author Edith Wharton. Ernest Hemingway and Gertrude Stein were also early patrons. Thornton Wilder and Archibald MacLeish borrowed books. Stephen Vincent Benét wrote “John Brown’s Body” (1928) at the Library, and Sylvia Beach donated books from her lending library when she shuttered Shakespeare & Co. in 1941.
With the coming of World War II, the occupation of France by the Nazi regime, and the deepening threats to French Jews, Library director Dorothy Reeder and her staff and volunteers provided heroic service by operating an underground, and potentially dangerous, book-lending service to Jewish members barred from libraries. One staff member was shot by the Gestapo when he failed to raise his hands quickly enough during a surprise inspection.
When Reeder was sent home for her safety, Countess de Chambrun rose to the occasion to lead the Library. In a classic Occupation paradox, the happenstance of her son’s marriage to the daughter of the Vichy prime minister, Pierre Laval, ensured the Library a friend in high places, and a near-exclusive right to keep its doors open and its collections largely uncensored throughout the war. A French diplomat later said the Library had been to occupied Paris ‘an open window on the free world.’
The Library prospered in the postwar era as the United States took on a new role in the world, the expatriate community in Paris experienced regeneration, and a new wave of American writers came to Paris – and to the Library. Irwin Shaw, James Jones, Mary McCarthy, Art Buchwald, Richard Wright, and Samuel Beckett were active members during a heady period of growth and expansion. During these early Cold War years the Director Ian Forbes Fraser barred the door to a high-profile visit from Senator Joseph McCarthy’s notorious minions, who were touring Europe in search of ‘red’ books in American libraries.”
For the last 48 years, the Library has been located two blocks from the Seine and two blocks from the Eiffel Tower, on rue du Général Camou, handily right around the corner chez moi.
When I find myself too distracted by laundry and household chores to get any work done, I make my way to the Library’s large reading room and nestle in for a quiet day of writing and French. Other times, I take advantage of the large selection of French and English DVDs (currently on my list of must “sees”: Le Petit Nicolas, Rue Cases-Nègres, and LOST, Season 4).
Superman regularly checks out a stack of non-fiction reads, and Button heads there to study, and thankfully it also serves as a shelter for me when I have locked myself out of my apartment for the umpteenth time…
…yes, Nicola, I did it again!