The days are starting to feel short here. Yesterday the cloud cleared around 4 o’clock, just in time for the sun to go down. Sunset tables tell me that the sun didn’t actually set until 5.20, but it disappeared behind buildings long before that. If you’re reading this at a similar latitude to Paris, or somewhere further north, you’ll understand why I think it’s time to take stock of the bookshelf.
When we moved to Paris a lot of our books stayed behind in York. I packed the books that were moving with us, so I got to choose. There are old favourites that I’d already read more than once, those I wanted to read again, some I’d always meant to read, and others that I planned to finish some day.
‘Home, Window and Roof Gardening’ by W.E Shewell-Cooper falls into the first category. It’s a slim, battered, brownish green volume, published in 1950, and bought for 25p in a junk shop thirty years later. The author is bossy and opinionated, but he gives good practical advice and writes with real enthusiasm of the joys and troubles of small scale gardening.
‘Pilgrim at Tinker Creek’ by Annie Dillard is one of those I brought to Paris to finish. It’s a beautifully written, meditative book full of long, reflective passages about tiny incidents in the natural world. Annie Dillard writes with intense focus, whether she’s considering the unfurling, spring leaves of a tulip tree, or the maggots of a parasitic wasp developing inside a caterpillar. That’s why it took me so long to finish the book. Closely observed nature doesn’t always make good bedtime reading.
‘The Unofficial Countryside’ by Richard Mabey, published in 1973, was a trail blazer for urban ecology. At a time when wildlife trusts and conservation groups focussed largely on ‘unspoiled’ countryside, this account of the developing ecosystems of waste tips, canal banks and railway sidings jumped the fence between ‘country’ and ‘city’. Richard Mabey’s recent ‘Weeds’ revisits some of the habitats in the earlier book, while exploring the long history of plants adapted to growing alongside human habitation and cultivation. That’s two for rereading, as I get to know the distinctive, wild flora of Paris.
The ‘Paris’ section of our bookshelf was primed by presents from friends and family and is still growing. ‘Quiet Paris’, ‘Secret Paris’ and ‘Quiet Corners of Paris’ were all variations on a theme as Christmas gifts, just before our move. As I readjusted to city life, I was grateful for all the surprising green and peaceful corners revealed by these books. Now I’m more confident about finding my way around the city, I prefer exploring without a guidebook, simply heading for a patch of green on the map or following an interesting view, but there’s often something I want to look up when I get home.
Many of the books in these pictures are old friends, some are new acquaintances. Together these books and many others have informed, surprised, challenged and reassured me, helping to shape the way in which I make sense of the city, the natural world and the places in between. What’s on your bookshelf?