Peso, dollar, time. As a Filipino teenager who migrated to the U.S. in the early 2000’s, my understanding of currency has always been mangled. I always used to marvel at the peso-dollar rate when I was still in the Philippines, not knowing the economic implications of how a dollar is worth fifty times more than the peso. The dollar was pervasive in the country, with thousands leaving its borders for better opportunities abroad.
As I got older, I had to wrap my head around the intangible currency of time. Of how one can buy, spend or invest time in something or on someone; how it can be measured, and of what so little or a lot of it equates to. And how people are increasingly in favor of this intangible currency versus its tangible form on paper.
I wasn’t really thinking about these things until I started reading Nina George’s debut novel, The Little Paris Bookshop. Jean Perdu, the main character, owns a bookshop called the Literary Apothecary which rests atop the Seine River in Paris. The Literary Apothecary is a floating book barge filled with numerous titles, comfy chairs, cats (Kafka and Lindgren) wherein you can come in with an ailment (mostly of the heart) and sure enough, come out with a title that promises of a cure.
One of my favorite things in the book was Perdu’s process for compiling what he called his “Encyclopedia of Emotions for Literary Pharmacists”: A for ‘Anxiety about picking up hitchikers’, E for ‘Early risers’ smugness’ and Z for ‘Zealous toe concealment, or the fear that the sight of your feet might destroy someone’s love for you.’ It reinforces the way that words are able to capture emotions so succinctly and in this case, quite literally.
It’s true that whatever your mind focuses on materializes — that’s probably how I stumbled upon this book. It was a book filled with tiny gems, on one’s love for another, on one’s love for books as I craft my way around building this blog — my own tribute to the books I read. How far and how wide the world opens up, even with a single turn of the page.
But books as currency in the modern world? I shouldn’t believe it’s impossible.
When Perdu cast off the ropes that had bound the Literary Apothecary to the river bank for decades, all he had was a plethora of books, the neighborhood cats and the weight of what he should’ve done 21 years ago: fight for the love of Manon, his lover who disappeared one morning. Manon, who believed that the world’s rulers could only be capable of understanding humans after reading thousands of books and acquiring a reader’s license, who taught Perdu how to build a home within himself, who disappeared one morning without a trace.
On the book barge’s first embankment when they were stopped by the river patrol, Perdu managed to pay the fines by trading books with the patrol officers. The officer settled for a recipe book called Cooking for the Single Man and a copy of a book written by Perdu’s young neighbor and famed author, Max Jordan, who decided he wanted to come with him. At a stop in Saint-Mammès, a commune on the confluence of the Seine and Loing rivers, Perdu was able to acquire a newspaper, stamps, postcards of the marina, some baguettes and croissants in exchange for a single book.
Using them [books] as currency didn’t come easily to him, for he knew their true worth. A bookseller never forgets that books are a very recent means of expression in the broad sweep of history, capable of changing the world and toppling tyrants.
As he went on his journey, I was continuously struck by the novel ways books afforded Perdu the means to unmoor himself from the stoicism and gloom of his previous day to day existence. To read about a world where the exchange involving books could provide for physiological sustenance, for a temporary appeasement with the law. Even if it’s fiction, it is uplifting to know that it has at least permeated the minds of the readers of this book.
But on some level, I know this to be a fact already. A truth on its own, as someone who has always turned to books for solace. As someone who has relied on the comfort of yellowed pages, of lovingly creased spines, of the smell upon a turn of the page that is like no other. Of how a particular title can induce a smile, or how a cover can suddenly flood memories in your mind. They say that book lovers never go to bed lonely, and while that has held true at some points in my life, I’ve realized that they’ve actually made the loneliness bearable, tangible in a way that teaches me.
He wanted her to sense the boundless possibilities offered by the books. They would always be enough. They would never stop loving their readers. They were a fixed point in an otherwise unpredictable world. In life. In love. After death.
I might have read the book in a span of 3-4 days back in January when I also happened to watch a French movie called Gemma Bovery. The title drew me — I read Flaubert in high school and this film only endeared me to the French countryside even more. And those reading days careened by, as I nourished my own love for the titles I’ve previously read. Like that time when I first read Letters to a Young Poet at Treasure Island after a bad breakup, or that Christmas morning when I finished The God of Small Things. Most days I stay in bed, floating to whatever realm these books took me. Always with a chuckle, a deep sigh, a reverent understanding of how the world works, new eyes.
When Perdu finally settled in Sanary-sur-Mer on the coast of Provence, he found peace, love and himself. Although his journey was unconventional, it was buoyed by the same struggles that all of us face. Fear can easily take hold and cripple us, just as it did with Perdu. That we need to be a little lost at times, “that the soul needs to cry to be happy.” I learned so much from this book, and I am eternally grateful to Nina George. In addition to knowing that books can be an unlikely but ultimate currency, here’s another unlikely, beautiful truth:
Books can do many things, but not everything. We have to live the important things, not read them.