The Paris Library Page 2

I followed her through the reading room, where subscribers in smart suits lowered their newspapers to get a better look at the famous Directress, up the spiral staircase and down a corridor in the sacred “Employees Only” wing to her office, which smelled of coffee. On the wall hung a large aerial photo of a city, its blocks like a chessboard, so different from Paris’s winding streets.

Noting my interest, she said, “That’s Washington, DC. I used to work at the Library of Congress.” She gestured for me to be seated and sat at her desk, which was covered by papers—some trying to sneak out of the tray, others held in place by a hole puncher. In the corner was a shiny black phone. Beside Miss Reeder, a chair held a batch of books. I spied novels by Isak Dinesen and Edith Wharton. A bookmark—a bright ribbon, really—beckoned from each, inviting the Directress to return.

What kind of reader was Miss Reeder? Unlike me, she’d never leave books open-faced for a lack of a marque-page. She’d never leave them piled under her bed. She would have four or five going at once. A book tucked in her purse for bus rides across the city. One that a dear friend had asked her opinion about. Another that no one would ever know about, a secret pleasure for a rainy Sunday afternoon—

“Who’s your favorite author?” Miss Reeder asked.

Who’s your favorite author? An impossible question. How could a person choose only one? In fact, my aunt Caro and I had created categories—dead authors, alive ones, foreign, French, etc.—to avoid having to decide. I considered the books in the reading room I’d touched just a moment ago, books that had touched me. I admired Ralph Waldo Emerson’s way of thinking: I am not solitary whilst I read and write, though nobody is with me, as well as Jane Austen’s. Though the authoress wrote in the nineteenth century, the situation for many of today’s women remained the same: futures determined by whom they married. Three months ago, when I’d informed my parents that I didn’t need a husband, Papa snorted and began bringing a different work subordinate to every Sunday lunch. Like the turkey Maman trussed and sprinkled with parsley, Papa presented each one on a platter: “Marc has never missed a day of work, not even when he had the flu!”

“You do read, don’t you?”

Papa often complained that my mouth worked faster than my mind. In a flash of frustration, I responded to Miss Reeder’s first question.

“My favorite dead author is Dostoevsky, because I like his character Raskolnikov. He’s not the only one who wants to hit someone over the head.”


Why hadn’t I given a normal answer—for example, Zora Neale Hurston, my favorite living author?

“It was an honor to meet you.” I moved to the door, knowing the interview was over.

As my fingers reached for the porcelain knob, I heard Miss Reeder say, “?‘Fling yourself straight into life, without deliberation; don’t be afraid—the flood will bear you to the bank and set you safe on your feet again.’?”

My favorite line from Crime and Punishment. 891.73. I turned around.

“Most candidates say their favorite is Shakespeare,” she said.

“The only author with his own Dewey Decimal call number.”

“A few mention Jane Eyre.”

That would have been a normal response. Why hadn’t I said Charlotte Bront?, or any Bront? for that matter? “I love Jane, too. The Bront? sisters share the same call number—823.8.”

“But I liked your answer.”

“You did?”

“You said what you felt, not what you thought I wanted to hear.”

That was true.

“Don’t be afraid to be different.” Miss Reeder leaned forward. Her gaze—intelligent, steady—met mine. “Why do you want to work here?”

I couldn’t give her the real reason. It would sound terrible. “I memorized the Dewey Decimal system and got straight As at library school.”

She glanced at my application. “You have an impressive transcript. But you haven’t answered my question.”

“I’m a subscriber here. I love English—”

“I can see that,” she said, a dab of disappointment in her tone. “Thank you for your time. We’ll let you know either way in a few weeks. I’ll see you out.”

Back in the courtyard, I sighed in frustration. Perhaps I should have admitted why I wanted the job.

“What’s wrong, Odile?” asked Professor Cohen. I loved her standing-room-only lecture series, English Literature at the American Library. In her signature purple shawl, she made daunting books like Beowulf accessible, and her lectures were lively, with a soup?on of sly humor. Clouds of a scandalous past wafted in her wake like the lilac notes of her parfum. They said Madame le professeur was originally from Milan. A prima ballerina who gave up star status (and her stodgy husband) in order to follow a lover to Brazzaville. When she returned to Paris—alone—she studied at the Sorbonne, where, like Simone de Beauvoir, she’d passed l’agrégation, the nearly impossible state exam, to be able to teach at the highest level.


“I made a fool of myself at my job interview.”

“A smart young woman like you? Did you tell Miss Reeder that you don’t miss a single one of my lectures? I wish my students were as faithful!”

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