Any child psychologist will tell you it’s a bad idea to compare siblings to each other. Ask big sis why her room isn’t as neat as her younger brother’s and she won’t clean it up, she’ll drop out of school and ride off on a motorcycle to the tattoo shop. It’s probably not a good idea to compare one country to another either, although I don’t know what the national equivalent of a regrettable tattoo is. But the Olympics are in full swing and global competition is in the air (along with Zika-laden mosquitoes) so let’s throw caution (and some bug spray) to the wind and ask the big question: How does the good old U.S. of A. stack up to the rest of the world?
Pretty well overall, I’d say. I don’t wear a flag pin on my lapel or anything, but most of the time I’m perfectly happy to live where I do. I’m on vacation abroad right now, though, and my trip has shown me that we have some catching up to do in at least one important area. I’m talking about our relationship with books, of course. Sure, you and I read like our lives depend on it, but not everyone in the fifty states feels the same way. France, on the other hand, show signs of being the most book-obsessed place on the planet.
Prove it, you say? I’ll start with the signs. The blue ones on the side of the roads, I mean. Everywhere I’ve been in France, from the biggest cities to the smallest towns, I found streets named after writers. Even if no one in the vicinity has cracked the spine of The Stranger lately, they treat Albert Camus with the same respect they do their politicians and generals.
And literature isn’t just part of history here. Jet-lagged and awake at 3 a.m., I turned on the TV to a show called Journey to the End of Night, named after a Louis-Ferdinand Celine novel. It featured a woman supine on a couch, reading aloud from a book. That’s it. The whole show. She was reading from a 60-year-old American novel called Chocolates for Breakfast written by a then-nineteen-year-old named Pamela Moore. Smart, saucy, and well worth revisiting, but who knew that French insomniacs would care for it?
The next day, hot and thirsty in the 34-degree weather (I leave the Fahrenheit conversion to you), I went into a convenience store in search of a cold drink. They didn’t have ice, but they did have a magazine rack. Alongside the usual celebrity rags and newsweeklies I saw three different literary magazines. OK, maybe you’ll find an article or two about top summer thrillers or best back-to-school reads on an American newsstand, but when was the last time Ian McEwan was a cover model? Let alone Stefan Zweig, who I’m willing to bet has never been given the tabloid treatment on this side of the Atlantic.
By this point I wasn’t shocked to discover that the local grocery store had a fairly massive book section, but my jaw did drop when I saw that it included the philosophy of Kierkegaard and monthly installments of the works of Shakespeare. I don’t know how many shoppers are taking copies of those home with their wine and baguettes, but someone’s subsidizing that shelf space.
Even when I thought I’d gotten as far away from literature as possible, it found me. The beach was filled with activity and distraction–swimming, sunbathing, windsurfing, paddleball, soccer in the sand, and a bustling boardwalk filled with bicyclists and rollerbladers. And there in the middle of it all was a perfect little library for barefoot browsers. I parked myself in a shaded lounge chair and kept tabs on a steady stream of visitors that let up only when the place closed for lunch (food being the only other thing the French take as seriously as books).
Infected by this pervasive literary ambiance, I turned every page I’d brought with me all too quickly and had to replenish my travel supply. Fortunately, the bookshops here are also plentiful, and they all stock recent English-language titles. I picked up I Am Radar by Reif Larsen, Sweet Caress by William Boyd, and The Fishermen by Chigozie Obioma. I’ll be lugging them in my carry-on when I come home, along with a sense of humility about America’s position on the Booklympic medal table.