POSTCARD: It Takes a Village

PARIS, France—Twenty-eight years ago, on July 14, 1982, the auburn-haired Odile Hellier opened her bookshop, the Village Voice.

In a city that was already no stranger to the Anglophone bookstore, another would-be temple commemorating the Lost Generation might have seemed trite and, indeed, might not have lasted. But the Village Voice was not conceived as a memorial to the past.

Through a careful selection of titles, Ms. Hellier said that her shop was imagined as a means of presenting the American political and intellectual vitality of the present to a customer base that may or may not, for instance, have had any idea what or who Gloria Steinem was. In other words, it was supposed to show the tired, complacent Paris of the early 1980s the richness she had absorbed in the decade she spent in the United States in the 1970s—an image of a nation transposed into bookshop form, more or less.

“I thought that France would have changed a lot in the 1970s,” she told me recently. “In fact, it had changed—but not that much. I felt that it was stuck.”

Living in Washington, D.C. in those years, she said, was a transforming experience, during which she saw first hand the Vietnam demonstrations, the internecine struggles of the feminist movement, the awakening of the gay rights cause, the rise of Native American consciousness, and, of course, the power of African-American culture.

“When I came back to Paris, all that richness was not here,” she said. “I felt like creating a bridge between the two cultures.”

It’s an interesting idea, representing the essence of a culture through the books on your shelves. And, as a customer at the shop since at least before my voice changed, I can only say—without being too overdramatic—that the image of America the Village Voice presents is the same America I wish I could call my own.

When you walk into the shop, there’s a table piled high with, more or less, every recently released book you must read should you wish to consider yourself a semi-sentient being. This summer, for instance, there was Alan Brinkley’s biography of Henry Luce, Shlomo Sand’s polemic about the origins of the Jewish people, and Peter Carey’s parody of Tocqueville’s journey through America.

That, in a nutshell, is what is so attractive about the Village Voice: with a refreshing lack of pretension, it nevertheless presupposes a certain level of intelligence among its customers, even the ones who just want to buy a book and go about their business. I, for example, learned my lesson when I was in ninth grade, waiting in the check out line. The man behind the counter made some jab about someone called Henry Miller, and I didn’t laugh because I thought it was some sort of inside joke.

Needless to say: Excoriation. Was. Received. (And, for the record, he required my mother to buy me The Tropic of Cancer, which I actually still have on my bedside table at home but, admittedly, still have yet to read.)

Nevertheless, the America that the Village Voice works so hard to re-create (even through books that have little to do with the United States)—the America of the Mary McCarthys and the Rienhold Niebuhrs, the Cornel Wests and the Betty Friedans, a culture of reading, of discussion, and, above all else, of sustained thought—is not (and probably never will be) the predominantly anti-intellectual America in which I grew up, where reading is an assignment and thinking the process by which a perceivable objective is attained.

The Village Voice, if not an entirely accurate intellectual portrait of today’s United States, is still enough to make any American proud, even of a country that does not quite exist.

James K. McAuley ’12, a Crimson associate editorial editor, is a history and literature concentrator in Currier House.