For the Love of Words
Lula- Girl of My Dreams, a British Fashion mag that prides itself which such descriptions as “the kind of girl you’d have a crush on (or be intimidated by)” has become a staple in my pile of fashion magazines since I discovered a lonesome copy of it at a Hudson Newsstand in Penn Station two years ago. Founded by Leith Clark in 2006, this magazine has made it’s way into the homes and hearts of fashionastias, writers, dancers and creative beings across the spectrum. A heavy monster of beauty, this magazine is released bi-annually, which leaves a gaping hole in the hearts of readers, who, like myself, have become captivated by the dreamy, whimsical images and stories it has offered. In the most recent edition (#15), Clemence Poesy sat down with Sylvia Whitman of Shakespeare and Company fame, to discuss her love for her father’s book store, the beauty of the written word, and the legend the store has become. Having read this interview, I have come to understand, possibly for the first time, what is means to be in love with the written word.
I do not think there is much need to reiterate that as a writer, I find that my passion comes from so much more than just the need to commit pen to paper (or in some cases, finger to keyboard). The creation of a word leads to the creation of an entity, which in my case, led to the birth of a novel. But what does it mean to have a love for the written word? What does it mean to have such a passion? To me, it means that you eat, sleep, breathe and literally feel the words surrounding you, the way that one would feel the presence of someone they love. The difference here is that this passion is not separate from me, it is me. Through trial and error, strength or defeat, both as a writer and as a human being narrowly navigating my path through this world, it is something that runs through my veins. It comforts me in times of sorrow and celebrates with me in times of joy. It is simply impossible for me to believe that there are people who live life from day to day who do not have a passion or driving force. What is the point of living if you do not know who you are, if you do not know what drives you to continue living? I am fortunate to know such a secret, but how many people shuffle themselves from one place to another, without finding the answer?
As it turns out, the recent edition of Lula addressed the very topic of passionate living. In its whimsical, fairytale like manner, it brought to life one of the the world’s most famous bookstores, the dreams of a bookseller and his daughter’s lively methods with camping customers at the Shakespeare and Company bookstores in Paris, France. The interview, which mainly focused on Sylvia Whitman’s accounts of her youth in the bookshop, a dream like youth filled with book lovers and backpackers, searching for passion amongst the books and beds of the store, brought to life a captivating tale of a place that many have come to call home. The bookstore not only housed creativity, it birthed passionate people, and cradled them during their creative process. A home and a haven to readers and the curious by passer by, this famous landmark exudes the very meaning of a passionate existence, and the people who maintain it demonstrate just how important it is to keep such a dying art form alive.
Throughout the interview, Whitman shared various anecdote about what it took to keep the shop up and running throughout the years. There were several stories that spoke to my heart, like the story of original owner Sylvia Beach, who opened the doors to the bookstore in 1919. Her book store, as Whitman explains, became a mecca for various writers in Paris, including Fitzgerald and Hemingway. She became a renowned bookseller due to her publication of Ulysses in 1922. The rather dramatic ending of the first stage of Shakespeare and Company came in 1941, when a Nazi officer threatened to close the shop due to the fact that Beach refused to sell him a copy of Finnegans Wake. Her dignity was too great and her love for the books was too strong to allow such a horrid man to destroy her beloved bookstore, so, over night, she managed to close the bookshop. With close friends on hand, within a few hours, they managed to board up the store and move all of the books to an apartment directly above the store. Beach never reopened the store, but remained in Paris until her death. I’m sure you can imagine the bewildered look on the Nazi’s face, when approaching the bookstore the following morning with a mission to carry out, only to find that the store had mysteriously disappeared and it it’s place stood a boarded up, lonely looking building. How beautiful is it to see someone go so far for their love. It makes me wonder, how far would I go for my love of words?
When George Whitman, a bookseller and self proclaimed “travel-tramp” arrived in Paris in 1946, his love for the written word pushed him to run a bookshop out of his hotel room. In the interview, Whitman describes her father’s wild love for books, and how he simply could not help himself, he had to sell books for a living. He had to give other’s the opportunity to feel and express the same joy that he did every time he opened up a book. It wasn’t a want, it was an absolute need. Eventually, Whitman opened his own little bookstore, in a rather run down area of the city. But, like the bookstore, the neighborhood quickly blossomed. What fertile soil a bookstore must cultivate. Give one portion of your life as much love and dedication as Whitman gave to his bookstore, and prepare to watch in awe as the earth around you begins to sprout and grow.
For the first ten years after Whitman opened the doors of the bookshop, it went by the name of Le Mistral, however with the blessing of Sylvia Beach, the title was soon changed to Shakespeare and Company, as it remains today. Not only did the shop house hundreds upon thousands of books of every genre, but it quickly became a hostel of sorts as well. Today, as Whitman explained in the interview, she receives hundreds of requests for a week from backpackers and even local Parisians, to spend a night bunking at the bookstore. Can you imagine the wondrous dreams that must come from the minds of those who spend a night among the books? These guests have been nicknamed “Tumbleweeds” and have become just as legendary as the books and the history behind them.
Such a place must bread the most beautiful words. When reading about this magical place I could not help but compare it to the Cemetery of Forgotten Books, the forlorn, mystical bookstore found in Carlos Ruiz Zafon’s epic Gothic novel The Shadow of the Wind (as well as in those novels that followed it). Though I cannot say for certain that Zafon’s depiction of the Cemetery of Forgotten Books was based on Shakespeare and Company, the similarities strike me. Such beauty it has bread, and such imagination. And all this just for the sake of sharing their love of words with the world.
Whitman’s explanations and brief history of bookstore awoke my slumbering mind. In the rush of current affairs, sometimes you forget you love, or even more so, who you are. I live, to coin a term, an “Instruction Manual-eque” life. True, my greatest love and passion is that of the written word. True, the novel I have written is on the brink of making it’s debut into the literary world. Yet, out of necessity, I cannot live in that world at every moment of the day, because for the sake of my sanity, I have a desk job. I imagine John Ashbery, sitting at his desk, in solitude, watching the entire world move below him while he finds himself chained to an ominous assignment of writing an owner’s manual, and I cannot help but compare myself. Sometimes, your love and passion must be met with the boredom of a desk job. However, it is the stories created during these moments that could spark passion, even in the most ridiculous circumstances.
If every person could do with their love and passion what Whitman and her father did and continue to do at Shakespeare and Co, imagine how the garden of the world would spring up and blossom. If you found a passion and followed it through, imagine where you would be now. It’s never too late to cultivate your passion, where ever you are, whatever you do. Now is the time. Take the seeds of passion and creativity and plant them in your life. You will be astonished to see where such a life can lead you.
So, what are you waiting for? Take the seeds and go plant some creativity!