Paris to the Moon by Adam Gopnick
New York Times Notable Book of 2000 &
New York Public Library Selection as one of the 25 Memorable Books of 2000.
Those who wish to be travelers, not simply tourists, yearn for the kind of insights that author Adam Gopnik shares in his book of essays about Paris. He entertains with his journalistic wit and shrewd observations, and then surprises us with poignant wisdom. He balances the everyday details of life with magic moments of transcendence. When I am touring, this balance is what makes my journey worthwhile. I can only "view" a few museums, cathedrals and postcard scenic areas before they become a blur. I want to smell, touch, and experience a new place in its everyday garb. Gopnik’s facility with language expresses my own stumbling fascination with seeking new places.
Gopnik is a journalist for the "New Yorker" magazine, author of the award winning "Paris Journal." There is depth of investigation and shared experience to satisfy the reader hungry for cultural knowledge and poetic description. Sample, for instance, these images:
I chuckled at these sentences when I read them, they remind me of my own crazy conversations about my travels. Whenever I come home, table conversations inevitably veer toward the varieties of bathroom plumbing I’ve experienced. Gopnik’s toasters and plug stories seem to fit right in my stream of consciousness.
The author, his wife, and infant son expect that they have left life in New York City to enjoy the cafes, the Eiffel Tower and Musée d’Orsay. But with the excitement of living abroad comes the confusion of being a stranger. They discover the tension between official French bureaucracy and French civilization. They manage life with a young child. The Paris that Gopnik introduces us to includes Christmas lights, fax machines and a billboard. His insights start with confusions about little details but reside in the deep truths of French and American life. Eventually, the mundane turns transcendent as he reaches for deep truths of all human experience. From French appliances, he weaves an essay on art. "Every epoch has an art form into which all the energies and faiths and beliefs and creative unselfconsciousness flows. What makes them matter is their ability not to be big but to be small meaningfully, to be little largely, to be grandly, or intensely, diminutive."
Despite everything I had heard about the book, I still had hoped that "Paris" might also include essays about side trips to the French countryside. I tend to prefer more wild places than urban. The author mentions making trips, but doesn’t use his talent to delve into the magic of the rural areas in essay form. I’ll have to wait until he writes a "Loire Journal." But my quibble does not diminish the fact that Paris is the heart of France. Knowing Paris through these essays helps us know the French.
The title "Paris to the Moon" refers to a 19th century engraving showing a mundane train station with a locomotive on its way from the right bank of Paris but instead of chugging down the street we see the rails stretching up…. to the moon! According to Gopnick, "… the idea is that there is, for some Americans anyway, a direct path between the sublunary city and a celestial state. Americans, Henry James wrote, ‘are too apt to think that Paris is the celestial city,’ and even if we don’t quite think that, some of us do think of it as the place where tickets are sold for the train to get you there. (Ben Franklin thought this, and so did Gertrude Stein, and so did Henry Miller. It’s a roomy idea.)."
In the past, travelers would read Stein, Hemingway and James when contemplating a trip to Paris. For me, this book will claim a place among these classics. I’ll put on Gershwin’s great tone poem "An American in Paris," watch Gene Kelly’s movie based on the Gershwin, and enjoy Adam Gopnik’s collection of essays.