To understand a place, one needs to understand where it comes from, its influences, its passions, its sorrows, its history. For over two thousand years man has left his mark on this place we call Paris.
You can’t escape the past in Paris, and yet what’s so wonderful about it is that the past and present intermingle so intangibly that it doesn’t seem to burden. –Allen Ginsberg
Here are 6 books worth a look at to better understand the city of lights.
Paris: The Biography of a City by Colin Jones
From the Roman Emperor Julian, who waxed rhapsodic about Parisian wine and figs, to Henry Miller, who relished its seductive bohemia, Paris has been a perennial source of fascination for 2,000 years. In this definitive and illuminating history, Colin Jones walks us through the city that was a plague-infested charnel house during the Middle Ages, the bloody epicenter of the French Revolution, the muse of nineteenth-century Impressionist painters, and much more. Jones’s masterful narrative is enhanced by numerous photographs and feature boxes–on the Bastille or Josephine Baker, for instance–that complete a colorful and comprehensive portrait of a place that has endured Vikings, Black Death, and the Nazis to emerge as the heart of a resurgent Europe. This is a thrilling companion for history buffs and backpack, or armchair, travelers alike.
When Paris Went Dark: The City of Light Under German Occupation, 1940-1944 by Ronald Rossbottom
WHEN PARIS WENT DARK evokes with stunning precision the detail of daily life in a city under occupation, and the brave people who fought against the darkness. Relying on a range of resources–memoirs, diaries, letters, archives, interviews, personal histories, flyers and posters, fiction, photographs, film and historical studies–Rosbottom has forged a groundbreaking book that will forever influence how we understand those dark years in the City of Light.
Paris to the Past: Traveling Through French History by Train by Ina Caro
In one of the most inventive travel books in years, Ina Caro invites readers on twenty-five one-day train trips that depart from Paris and transport us back through seven hundred years of French history. Whether taking us to Orleans to evoke the visions of Joan of Arc or to the Place de la Concorde to witness the beheading of Marie Antoinette, Caro animates history with her lush descriptions of architectural splendors and tales of court intrigue.
Metronome: A History of Paris from the Underground Up by Lorant Deutsch
A phenomenal bestseller in France, Metronome presents a fascinating history of Paris through the lens of the city’s iconic Metro system.
Did you know that the last Gallic warriors massacred by the Romans lie beneath the Eiffel Tower? That the remains of Paris’s first cathedral are under a parking lot in the Fifth District? Metronome follows Lorant Deutsch, historian and lifelong Francophile, as he goes on a compelling journey through the ages, treating readers to Paris as they’ve never seen it before. Using twenty-one stops of the subway system as focal points–one per century–Deutsch shows, from the underground up, the unique, often violent, and always striking events that shaped one of the world’s most romanticized city. Readers will find out which streets are hiding incredible historical treasures in plain sight; peer into forgotten nooks and crannies of the City of Lights and learn what used to be there; and discover that, however deeply buried, something always remains.
The Invention of Paris: A History in Footsteps by Eric Hazan
The Invention of Paris is a tour through the streets and history of the French capital under the guidance of Parisian author and publisher Eric Hazan. Hazan reveals a city whose squares echo with the riots, rebellions and revolutions of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Combining the raconteur’s ear for a story with a historian’s command of the facts, he introduces an incomparable cast of characters: the literati, the philosophers and the artists–Balzac, Baudelaire, Blanqui, Flaubert, Hugo, Maney, and Proust, of course; but also Doisneau, Nerval and Rousseau. It is a Paris dyed a deep red in its convictions. It is haunted and vitalized by the history of the barricades, which Hazan retells in rich detail.
Parisians: An Adventure History of Paris by Robb Graham
This is the Paris you never knew. From the Revolution to the present, Graham Robb has distilled a series of astonishing true narratives, all stranger than fiction, of the lives of the great, the near-great, and the forgotten. A young artillery lieutenant, strolling through the Palais-Royal, observes disapprovingly the courtesans plying their trade. A particular woman catches his eye; nature takes its course. Later that night Napoleon Bonaparte writes a meticulous account of his first sexual encounter. A well-dressed woman, fleeing the Louvre, takes a wrong turn and loses her way in the nameless streets of the Left Bank. For want of a map–there were no reliable ones at the time–Marie-Antoinette will go to the guillotine. Baudelaire, the photographer Marville, Baron Haussmann, the real-life Mimi of La Boheme, Proust, Adolf Hitler touring the occupied capital in the company of his generals, Charles de Gaulle (who is suspected of having faked an assassination attempt in Notre Dame)–these and many more are Robb’s cast of characters, and the settings range from the quarries and catacombs beneath the streets to the grand monuments to the appalling suburbs ringing the city today. The result is a resonant, intimate history with the power of a great novel.