This book is about a Paris bookseller, who styles himself a literary pharmacist dispensing books for emotional ailments. I work in an actual pharmacy, so I was interested in this idea. Real pharmacy, of course, is precise, with cures measured in milligrams. Literary cures are not going to be like that, and the sceptical part of me wondered at the wisdom of comparing the vague benefit of books with pharmacy. Yet as a reader, I had the sense that books are good for you. So, what benefit might I gain from The Little Paris Bookshop?
Initially I didn’t seem to be gaining very much. The story started well, only for the plot to become decidedly shaky – based on a misunderstanding that was difficult to accept in people who were supposed to be sun-moon-and-stars in love. There were coincidental meetings that strained credulity. The sentimental view of books themselves became wearing, almost as if this was a novel about the idea of a good book rather than the thing itself. After all, Southern Lights, the book that literary pharmacist Jean Perdu most admires, is itself fictional. Only a pretend book can be perfect. We do have to accept that about books. This is where we come on to something more positive. Real books are not perfect, but they are the only kind of books that are going to offer us something we can use.
Back in the real world, The Little Paris Bookshop made some reasonable claims for the value of books. Books typically take you into the experience of someone who might be very different to yourself. In this way, they can help enhance a sense of empathy. That’s what I think Nina George is getting at when she says reading can make people more temperate, loving and kind. In this respect, the call for the world’s rulers to take a reader’s licence is a good one. However, Nina George is also right when she says that reading cannot give the power of empathy to a person who lacks it. “The truly evil… did not become better fathers, nicer husbands, more loving friends.” Sadly there is no cure for sociopathy.
So beyond the fact that books can make nice people nicer, what is there? The Little Paris Bookshop has no easy answers on that score. Books do not seem to be the solution to Jean Purdu’s problems. In fact, you could say he turns his back on books and goes off and gets a life. But what kind of life is that? Well, it’s a kind of glorified boating and beach holiday. He goes on a trip he doesn’t really need to take, but goes anyway. He is not looking for anything in particular, which provides the kind of open-ended journey where he does actually find something. Maybe that’s what a book is, a holiday, special in not being strictly needed.
I have to admit this wasn’t the best holiday I’ve ever taken. Some fellow tourists did get drunk and over excited. However, there were some interesting views, a few worthwhile excursions, and some holiday reading that stayed with me after I returned home.