3.00 FYI France: Ejournal and archive

by Jack Kessler, kessler@well.sf.ca.us

February 15, 2001 issue. This file presents an archive copy of the issue of the FYI France ejournal, ISSN 1071-5916, which was distributed via email on February 15, 2001.

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Versions of the following have appeared online regularly, since 1992, as a feature of the FYI France ejournal, ISSN 1071-5916, which is distributed for free via email every month except August. Ejournal subscriptions may be obtained via email request to: kessler@well.sf.ca.us

Here this file is one of a number made available -- hopefully attractively, all in one place, and relevant to libraries and online digital information work in France and Europe -- as part of FYI France (sm)(tm), an online service to which anyone can subscribe for 12 months by postal mailing a check for US $45, payable to Jack Kessler, to PO Box 460668, San Francisco, California, USA 94146 (site licenses also are available): please write your email address on the front of your check. Please email suggestions for improvements to me at kessler@well.sf.ca.us


FYI France: a "City of Books" in France


I hear tales of a "City of Books", in France -- Montolieu, Village du Livre et des Arts Graphiques -- organized along lines similar to those of Hay - on - Wye in England.

The idea appears to be to create a "safe haven" for books and for the lovers of books. In this tiny French village (current permanent population 786), located in a picturesque spot, people who really like to read and who enjoy printed books for doing their reading can go for a weekend, a week, or a more extended visit, and eat some good food, stay in quaint inns, browse bookstores, take walks in the country, enjoy picnics, read...

Montolieu has a museum of the history of the book:

The Musée Michel Braibant

a welcome addition to Lyon's excellent Musée de l'Imprimerie --


-- France needs more.

And there are places to stay in Montolieu --

and to camp --

plus more in surrounding villages -- and Carcassonne and Castelnaudary and even Toulouse are not all that far away, depending on whether you figure driving speeds in Languedoc - Roussillon or California styles (Toulouse is 90km, or not much over 1/2 hour on the autoroute if your driver is French).

And you can eat --

and eating should be no problem anyway, in this part of the world -- as a Guide Michelin Rouge tour for the Toulouse - Carcassonne stretch will take many visits to work through -- see,


(Now you can get your Guide Michelin on your Palm Pilot, or maybe somehow on your bright new car computer if you are navigating with one of those -- see URL above.)

There even is a hand paper mill near Montolieu -- any "art of the book" purist will insist that you must know about the paper...


And Montolieu has bookshops ! -- this is a town with a total population only a little larger than a famille nombreuse --

And Montolieu has Websites --


I haven't been to Montolieu myself, yet -- I would like very much to hear more from those who have -- but I do know the area:

Montolieu (see also "Montoulieu"?) appears to be a tiny town / hamlet in the valley of the Aude, sort of midway between Carcassone and Castelnaudary and on the route up to Toulouse -- the Languedoc - Roussillon. According to the "City of Books" main Website,

This is the land of the Cathars -- Le Roy Ladurie's "Montaillou" is over on the other side of the valley. Yahoo.fr (URL above) says that Montolieu offers,

So Montolieu has been a "safe haven" before: the Cathars, the Benedictines, and the Visigoths as well I imagine, a "bourg fortifié", a population reduction at some point of nearly 4000 people -- "la vallée sûre" indeed.

Travel in France is filled with this sort of history of insecurity, for a comfortable Californian: how these warm people stay so friendly, in hard little villages perched on hilltops and surrounded by strong doors and thick walls -- is endlessly fascinating, particularly for someone raised in sprawling cities laid out on suburban grids which have no horizon. Even if the supply of electric power is more "secure", at the moment anyway, in Montolieu than it is in San Francisco...

You get a sense of why this human warmth continues in the springtime, in the south of France. Few places are colder than a small, stone, European town in the winter: visit Pérouges, a little fortified place in the Ain near Lyon, and you'll see how forbidding a French village can be in a cold winter rain -- but when the little allotment gardens near the town wall began to bloom in the Pérouges spring, and roses start to creep around corners and blossom by surprise in front of windows, and wildflowers come up through the cobblestones -- and crocuses -- you begin to get the idea. The same "warming" effect simply can't be had in a land of perpetual springtime like California.


The atmosphere in which one shops for a book used to be important. "Telegraph Avenue", "The Village", "Whalley Avenue and Broadway", "Blackwell's", "Charing Cross Road" and "Foyles", "the Boulevard St. Michel"... each of us has a place where we teethed on printed books -- places all somehow inevitably equipped with nearby cafes, stationery stores for pens and pencils and notebooks for that irrepressible thought, little parks, long walking routes, and happy memories.

The recollection of the later shock which most of us confronted, shortly after this earliest blissful period, trying to read a book in an uncongenial milieu, still grates with some -- no way you can browse through poetry or read a short story in a traffic jam, or changing a diaper, or grocery shopping, or waiting for a tense business meeting -- no way you can read a book in a bank.

Digital information is learning this lesson slowly. Even for the bits and the bytes the presentation is important, the Internet is finding: whether this is called "interface design" or "ergonomics" -- or "architecture", or Steve Jobs' latest flavor in IMac colors -- the "place" where human - machine interaction occurs, in the new digital world, is becoming as critical as the digits in it.

The computer world's and the Internet's earliest "command line" / "any color so long as it's black" approach has yielded -- at best reluctantly, and for the most part kicking and screaming -- to a preoccupation with "user - friendliness", reminiscent less of technology and engineering departments than it is, now, more of techniques used to sell cars and perfume, and the movies.

This trend is better seen in Europe than it is in the US, where omnipresent "computers" can inhabit any cluttered and unsanitary "office" or "den" or "bedroom" or "briefcase" or "workplace": in Europe, where they still have far fewer "pcs", a good Internet Café in London or Paris or Lyon does its utmost to present the very latest in shocking / exciting architecture and interior design, with all the creature comforts of elegant lounge chairs, coffee and drinks and even food service, "ambient" music and lighting -- "the Internet experience", versus "just pounding on the computer" as in the US.

And yes there may be more of this, rather than less as has been predicted. Computer "penetration" numbers for the European market still are increasing. But, as rapidly, the paradigm for what constitutes "a computer" in digital information is changing, everywhere. The Europeans and the Asians have fallen in love with handheld telephones, for example, far more than Americans have. Its current "market downturn" troubles notwithstanding, the handheld -- an extremely fashion - oriented, faddish, fungible - commodity - phenomenon very unlike the utilitarian "computer" in the US -- may become the medium of choice for much of digital information, at least in Europe and Asia.

And then there is the "Infotainment" industry, which currently seems to be swallowing the Internet whole, in the US as well as elsewhere: the new AOL Time Warner already is flooding the world's DSL hookups with "content" presented very differently from anything which the old "command line ASCII" ever could have accommodated or even imagined -- try fitting today's Lara Croft / Tomb Raider / Angelina Jolie movie trailer, or a Christina Aguilera "bump 'n grind" video, into the old "acceptable use restrictions" mindset...

Or, simply for book - buying, consider the loving care and attention to detail lavished upon the leading Websites in the retail book industry alone -- La FNAC online, and Amazon - dot - whatever, and the rest -- these people pay a great amount of attention, now, within the limits of their medium, to "atmosphere" and "milieu". The minutely exact positioning of more than just banner ads, plus the extreme details of fonts and colors and layout and general graphic design, are as much the interest of Web designers nowadays as they ever were of the early printers -- more, perhaps -- Yahoo!'s confraternity with Aldus Manutius extends to more than simply the attempt to organize all the world's knowledge, now, as the presentation of that knowledge has become an overriding concern.


So the atmosphere in which one reads is important -- reading requires a receptive mind. Think of the times when you have had to read a thing again, then still again over and over, never understanding or even seeing the text which you have read -- words, words, words... -- and all that time you instead were thinking about your date for that evening, or your basketball game, or whether global warming really will melt the planet, or you just weren't thinking...

Some of us (I am one) fall asleep in libraries, others can read nothing in a crowded café, still others (me again) need the background "white noise" of a café in order to focus clearly on a difficult text -- whole generations of New Yorkers absorbed chemistry, and Proust, riding in to class on the very noisy "el" subways -- and still others need to lie beneath an apple tree to read a book, while some of us just snooze there. The ambiance makes a difference.

Whether the ambiance of a picturesque little village in southern France is the best for appreciating, browsing, selecting, savoring the printed book seems to me a highly - personal decision -- I myself favor noisy boulevards and cafes in big cities, others may prefer quiet libraries, still others that legendary "sunny day beneath an apple tree".

For digital information, well, "computer" screens -- even the "non - glare" kind -- tend to reflect glare when you try to use them beneath sunny day apple trees, and so I imagine do the screens on ebook readers and handheld telephones; and just try bringing your handheld into a library sometime, where "shh" isn't the only reaction you'll get if one of its melodies goes off in the "reading" room; and while noisy cafe's are pretty good, and certainly are used, for most "laptops" and "handhelds" -- café noise being greatly the result of the latter, nowadays -- there must be better places.

The point here being, generally, that "place" matters -- for digital information as much as for the printed book. These people in Montolieu are working hard to create a "place" for printed books, as people in the Internet cafe's are working hard to create a "place" for digital information: and the newest and latest libraries, for example the one residing in the BnF's new structure at Tolbiac, arguably are "places" for both -- an atmosphere / milieu in which the minds of users will be most receptive to both the information presented on a screen and / or that presented on a printed page.

It is questionable, I think myself, whether this "sense of place" problem really has been well thought out, in any of these areas -- especially considering the great variety of information users, and the vast range of "place" alternatives which they find most congenial.

But at least Montolieu appears to present one finely - worked alternative for "reading", as perhaps the BnF with its cavernous reading rooms at Tolbiac presents another. When they also integrate into reading's "sense of place" that noisy cafe' at the corner of the Boul' Mich, on the quai looking out over the Seine, they will have made everybody happy.




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M. Eiffel

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Document maintained by: Jack Kessler, kessler@well.sf.ca.us
Last update: March 19, 2001