Visiting a library in Paris

Ghassan Charbel
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Don’t go to the library. This trip is a trap. The rich library is a strict court. A store to sell poison, questions and doubts. Some believe that this trip is no longer useful and that you can read a book on your device or smartphone. There is a great difference however between buying a rose and going to a garden.

During the final days of 2017, I was in Paris where I visited a local library. I was awestruck. If you are an aspiring writer, your visit will remind you of all the hard work that goes into writing a book. If you are a journalist, the visit will open up old wounds. This is a beautiful and deadly profession all at the same time. It is beautiful because it forces you to weather storms and deadly because it consumes your time with tiny details. Every night a newspaper dies along with its news and articles and gives way for a new day for its makers.


I said awestruck because you are in the presence of giants who lit up their ages to warm up the reader for years, decades or centuries to come. Giants whose books have become landmarks in history. It is not an easy feat, for example, for a book published in the 19th century to make it through the deadly 20th century and persist to our present day.

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I know that cities are guarded by the police, but the library gives you the impression that the real guards are those who sleep in its stacks and stand as beacons of light. Storytellers, poets, scholars, critics and painters. It is as if this accumulation of creativity is what fortifies the city against spiritual and intellectual depletion and connects its past to its future.

French writers never grow tired of recalling former glories from their history and they never grow tired of critiquing them. They go into the details of events and stories and they do not hesitate in tarnishing once pristine images should they come across new information. No one can survive a critique or a redrawn image after it is rid of inaccurate stories.

As an Arab journalist, I wonder at how a former president can remain alive and dedicate his time to writing

Ghassan Charbel

Books on Napoleon

This is why you always find new books on Napoleon, Louis IV, Marie Antoinette, Mazarin, Richelieu and other figures who played key roles in this age or that. You also find new books on the horrors of the French Revolution. You find new readings of the behavior of some of the players in World War II. The French also never cease to recall stories about De Gaulle and Petain.

You will find on shelves a selection of poetry collected by former President Georges Pompidou. Love letters written by Francois Mitterrand to his girlfriend and the mother of his daughter. The cultured president was ardent about translating his passion into words.

You will find a book about Jacques Chirac, another by or on Nicolas Sarkozy. The same can be found of Francois Hollande, while you may come across books that try to decipher the mystery of how current president Emmanuel Macron made it to the Elysee.

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You will come across a beautiful realization that the majority of French presidents dream of becoming writers. Perhaps they feel that the French people will certainly forget those who came to office, but they will definitely remember a good or interesting book. France has a special place in its heart for the writer.

We saw this before the end of the year when Macron bowed before the Invalides where Napoleon is buried. He, along with two other presidents, bowed before the coffin of writer, journalist and French Academy member Jean d'Ormesson. Listening to Macron’s eulogy, one was reminded of France’s rich literary history.

As an Arab journalist, I wonder at how a former president can remain alive and dedicate his time to writing. I recalled that late Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh once told me how he was in awe of the phenomenon of former presidents in Lebanon. Our culture has no room for a former president. Many of those I have interviewed have been assassinated.

A turbulent world

Many books try to help the reader understand this turbulent world. Books about Vladimir Putin, who becomes more complex as one tries to understand him. Books on China, the Silk Road and the Asian rise.

Books on terrorism, assimilation, waves of migrants and the North Korean leader, who is boasting of his nuclear button. Books about the digital world, information revolution and the astounding technological advance that has changed the economy, politics, education and the individual’s relationship with the world.

The richest wing of the library holds the writers and poets who enriched France and whose tales and poems survived the test of time. Voltaire, Moliere, Flaubert, Balzac and Stendhal. Hugo, Baudelaire, Rimbaud and Lautréamont, reaching the Surrealists and their successors.

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Amid these rich shelves, one has to ask oneself. Will the works of these writers be read in the future? Will someone breathe new life into them? Will the youths who grow up in “institutes” and social media want to and have time to delve into these masterpieces? I noticed that the majority who leafed through these books are at least over 30. Where are the new readers? Will we witness books inspired by Twitter and similar apps?

The Arab always turns back to his woes. This is a normal library in a normal city. This is a country that treats its artists as if they were a treasure. When will the Arab have a normal city that is not on the verge of civil war or militia invasions? What have we done with the very few men who can rightfully be described as beacons of light and what have we done with their works?

The Arab always finds a reason to be sad or envious. This is why I told myself: I wish I had not gone to the library.

This article was first published in Asharq Al-Awsat.
Ghassan Charbel is the Editor-in-Chief of London-based Al Sharq al-Awsat newspaper. Ghassan's Twitter handle is @GhasanCharbel.

Disclaimer: Views expressed by writers in this section are their own and do not reflect Al Arabiya English's point-of-view.
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