Paris: The Story of a Great City

February 10, 2011

Who buys books, and why? Are they bought to be read by the buyer? To be given away as presents? Are they bought for their text? Are they bought for their illustrations? Are they bought to act as a portal to other works, via the following-up of sources? There are many good reasons not to buy Paris: The Story of a Great City, but there is also one very good reason to have it on a gift list. It all depends on the intended use of the book.

Scholars Danielle Chadych and Dominique Leborgne have both worked at the Musée Carnavalet of the history of Paris. They know the city intimately and have written a number of volumes on the subject for a variety of audiences. Paris: The Story of a Great City has been published almost simultaneously in French and in an English translation that has been very poorly rendered: a merciful veil is drawn over the translators' names, and this reviewer struggled over words such as "biface" and "cheviot" (apparently not referring to a sheep) and some sentences that lead nowhere.

The introduction, which is not written by the authors, suggests that the book is intended to show the imprint of history on the city. But history is here almost entirely built around kings, bishops and presidents, excluding entirely the built environments within which ordinary Parisians lived out their often miserable lives. The text is short - about 50 pages - yet the authors have allowed themselves the usual digressions into the lives and loves of kings that often mar volumes that are claimed to be about Paris itself. There is no overall argument or structure carrying the book forward.

The pace is breathless and abbreviated, but with a paradoxical level of extraneous detail: discussion of the First World War starts with a sentence giving the precise date of the assassination of Archduke Ferdinand, but four sentences later the war is over and we contemplate the Spanish flu epidemic of 1918-19. Fact is piled upon fact, date upon date, street name upon street name (although there is no street map of the city to help locate places).

One potentially interesting conceit is the addition of four flaps containing around 25 facsimile documents ranging from market regulations of 1210 to the surrender agreement signed by the Nazi occupiers in August 1944. Many are of considerable interest, although only some have been translated into English.

So what makes this worthy of consideration as a gift? Clearly not the text, nor the reference list, nor (despite some interest) the facsimile documents. The pleasure of the book lies in its wonderful set of illustrations, beautifully printed (in China), many of them of scenes that are not the familiar ones from innumerable books on the City of Light. There are about 150 plates, almost all in full colour, and many are drawn from the resources of the Musee Carnavalet itself. But captioning is often unhelpful, and exact sources are hard to track down in a list of credits at the end of the book (with many pictures being credited primarily to picture libraries rather than to source museums). Nevertheless, the images themselves bear close scrutiny and contemplation.

Do not buy Paris: The Story of a Great City for someone who wants to find out about the history and architecture of Paris and is new to the subject. But if you know someone who already knows and loves Paris, regard this as a superior picture book and pay the reasonable sum being asked by the publishers for a coffee-table book of this quality.

Paris: The Story of a Great City

By Danielle Chadych and Dominique Leborgne. Andre Deutsch, 124pp, £30.00. ISBN 9780233003016. Published 4 October 2010

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