In Paris there are two main national libraries—the Bibliothèque Nationale Francois Mitterrand (opened in 1996), in the western corner of the Left Bank, and the old Bibliothèque Nationale (1868) on the Rue de Richelieu near the Opera. I first went to the old one in the summer of 1962. I was a (very) young bride, about to become a college sophomore the following fall, on my first of many séjours in Paris with my husband, a doctoral student in French literature at Yale. We got a “couple” Reading Room card, with our picture taken together. We were a pair of literary researchers, a pursuit we shared over our 24-year marriage. My task that summer was to help check the quotations in his thesis on French writers Marcel Proust (early 20th century) and the Duke of Saint Simon (late 17th and early 18th centuries), comparing what my husband had written with the original, sometimes quite old, books that were the sources he had used. Finding and correcting a mistake was a thrill, as was holding 250-year old books in my hands.
Although I majored in Spanish, I loved the summers and sabbatical semesters immersed in French literature. But I did have one literary adventure in Spanish that took me into the Manuscript Room of the old Rue de Richelieu library. In 1972 I discovered a Provençal source for the first lyric poem in Castilian, the “Razón de Amor,” written around 1240. I learned that the poem, written on parchment likely by a scribe, was located in the Bibliothèque Nationale. I was delighted to find that out, and although it wasn’t necessary for my research, I asked and was given permission to read the poem in the original. Sitting in a temperature-controlled room off the library’s courtyard, I held the poem in my hands, more than 700 years after it had been written or copied. The same piece of parchment the medieval scribe had held. I cried for joy, holding the manuscript far in front of me, to make sure my tears fell in my lap, not on the parchment. But that was not the most emotional moment I’ve had in that library. That moment was to come more than four decades later.
In the meantime, in my trips to Paris, I went less and less to the Reading Room, moving on to other topics and other libraries in the city. By 1996, when the new library was opened, I was no longer married, no longer in the field of literature, and when I would walk along the Rue de Richelieu, it looked to me like the old library I had loved so much was closed—likely forever, or a least repurposed for something different. I stopped thinking about or remembering my happy work there. Those years of book dust on my clothes and crumbling leather bindings under my fingernails had vanished from my memory.
In November of 2017 I moved to Paris. Not certain if I was moving to the past, to the present, or to a place where I’d live into the future. To feel grounded both in Paris and in my American origins I joined an organization of American women, which offered visits in English of Parisian sites and neighborhoods. In the spring I signed up for a visit of Haussmanian Paris, centered around the Opera. We visited late 19th century gems—streets, a bank, a hotel, and, finally, the old Bibliothèque Nationale on the Rue de Richelieu. I didn’t think much when our guide led us through the entry gate into the courtyard. I did feel happily surprised. I didn’t think the public could enter except for special exhibits.
The guide led us across the courtyard and up some stairs to the entrance that, suddenly and strongly, felt very familiar to me. Whoa, oh my God. Someone there asked who we were. Yes, there was always someone there who asked that. And then I moved forward in our group, drawn through the entry into… yes, the Reading Room! In an instant my eyes took in everything… the shelves of books along the sides, the wooden reading desks, the people reading there, the 19th century metal ceiling supports and lights, and I was transfixed, overwhelmed, and I burst into sobs.
The women in our tour group saw my sudden outpouring of emotion. I explained that in that Reading Room was my youth, my happy young years reading, holding, writing about, and loving books and my young husband who shared that love with me. Revisiting it was a gift I’d never expected to receive. It was a part of my life I’d thought was lost forever. And there I had it back. The woman who had organized the event told me that the best part of the tour for her had been seeing the look on my face just before I burst into tears. I will never know exactly what I looked like. I can only recall the feeling as I reread this story or… if I dare to enter the courtyard, go up the stairs, and have several seconds of extraordinary emotion once again!