No, this isn’t one of the display tables at Island Books, it’s one from an independent, approximately Island Books-sized shop in Perpignan, France. It’s mostly filled with work by French writers, but you’ll also see some pretty recognizable Anglophone authors there, including Hillary Clinton, represented by her memoir Le temps des décisions, and E.L. James, famed for her erotic romance Cinquante nuances plus sombre. Sharp-eyed readers will also notice a tall pile of copies of La vérité sur l’affaire Harry Quebert, a hit novel by Swiss author Joël Dicker that was a staff pick for Cindy earlier in the summer.
All paperbacks, you’ll note, but that doesn’t mean these are last year’s releases just making their way into a cheaper format. Hardcovers are rare in France, and pretty much all books sold here start out in paperback. This is a practice that harkens back to the long-gone days when readers had all their books bound in leather. You’d buy the stitched-together paper pages of a book, then take them to a binder to have an elegant set of covers attached. Not only was your book permanently protected, it looked like all the others on your shelves, as if your library consisted of a single giant encyclopedia set.
Even when people stopped binding their own books, French publishers stuck with simple paper covers that looked more like title pages—no pictures at all, just the name of the book and its author. You’ll still see lots of these in stores today, especially on works that are supposed to be serious and important. Historian and economist Thomas Piketty’s surprise international bestseller Le capital au XXIe siècle, visible just right of center above, is a perfect example.
While all the books are in paperback, that doesn’t mean they’re priced the same. The latest from Donna Tartt, Le chardonneret, costs right around 24 Euros, about as much as it goes for in US dollars in hardcover, while older books may find their way into pocket editions for as little as six or seven Euros. But when you’ve chosen which book you want, there’s no sense trying to bargain-shop in different stores. The 1981 Lang Law, named after the Culture Minister who presided over its passing, states that once a publisher has determined a price and printed it on a book, no retailer may discount from that price by more than five percent. Sounds anti-consumer at first blush, but it allows for a thriving and diverse bookselling community that ultimately benefits readers.
French bookshops may fear cost-cutting global conglomerates, but they aren’t otherwise afraid of internationalism. Fiction in French stores is usually separated into littérature française and littérature étrangère. In larger stores you may even see separate sections for Asian fiction, South American fiction, European fiction, and so on. It’s an interesting distinction, which doesn’t seem intended to ghettoize foreign writing but to highlight it. Makes sense, given that probably half of the novels you’ll see in a French shop originate outside of the country. Reading in translation is normal there in a way that it isn’t quite in the US, however much of a cultural melting pot we otherwise are. Another distinction is made on the books themselves—the latest from, say, Ian McEwan will be identified as being traduit de l’anglais, but something by Louise Erdrich is correctly said to be traduit de l’américain. “Translated from English” isn’t the same as “translated from American,” after all.
French readers (or American tourists) who don’t want to settle for translations, great as they may be, are still in luck. Almost all shops have at least a small section of books in English, as pictured below.
Mostly bestsellers with a few classics sprinkled in for good measure, as you can see. On the top shelf in this photo you can spot another Island Books favorite, Kate Atkinson’s Life After Life, along with a new discovery, Douglas Kennedy’s Five Days. I’d never heard of him before, but he’s an American writer who’s a huge star in France—his books top the charts and have been made into movies multiple times. Inexplicably, he has yet to match that success in his homeland, but it’s not too late to get that ball rolling. Be the first on your block to give him a try.
Even more inexplicable is the presence in this photo of not one, not two, but THREE copies of Plays by Henry Arthur Jones. He was a 19th-century (melo)dramatist who is remembered today only because of Oscar Wilde, who once said, “There are three rules for writing plays. The first rule is not to write like Henry Arthur Jones; the second and third rules are the same.” I was tempted to take one home as a souvenir, but I decided to save room in my suitcase for something else.
See you in the States in September!