Thursday, December 22, 2005

BN, site François Mitterand


This is where I spend so many of my days...in the rez de jardin, many floors below the boardwalk that you see here, in the special "researchers" area which is like working at the bottom of a well, in glass rooms that surround a hidden pine garden that you cannot see here but which has tall, tall trees many stories high.

W.G. Sebald has probably given the best, darkest description of it in Austerlitz, but I can tell you a little more: there are four towers. They each have names describing the books they house: le tour des lois, le tour des nombres, le tour de l'espace, le tour de temps. The books are in the heights of the towers and we researchers burrow below. From a near distance the towers -- glass walls with yellowy wood bookcases lined up inside -- really do look like open books, standing up, facing each other.

Designed by Dominique Perrault and built between 1989-1995, it is now the main site of the Bibliothèque nationale, and has revitalized the sections of the 13e arrondissement it is near -- not to mention the quai d'Austerlitz.

I am finally starting to think it is beautiful, after many days of noticing birds fly into the glass walls, thwap, and fall dead to the bottom of the garden. Flocks of larks do stop here on their way migrating somewhere. The library is like a fortress: many defenses to keep you out, including a steep downward ramp you walk down in order to get to the entrance, which is very slippery in rainy or foggy weather, i.e. at all times. Once inside, there are bank-vault-like double doors which researchers push through, and a long single-file escalator in an absolutely monochrome silver-grey shaft going down, down, down. It has excellent natural light but poor lighting once the sun sets. I do love how they load up any films, reels, microfiche, or DVDs on a computer for you, from a distance, so that all you have to do is sit down at the computer reserved for you in a special room and press "play." But nothing can be checked out, and it is the sort of place that does not lend or give you books...it "communicates" them to you.

The formality of the BN makes going to the library like commuting to your office, for work...but there is a certain pleasure in that, too. I've gone there often enough to lose all anonymity. I know fellow researchers, the coat check people, and of course the abrupt Moroccan man who manages the only café and makes me espresso every day. The slick wood boardwalk of the BN, with its sandpaper traction slips and the giant MK2 movie theater right outside to cheer you up after work is over -- and the transparent mallette that I have to carry my laptop and effects in, once inside, as if we were all diamond workers and might slip something out, instead of fragile people working among books -- all this is habit for me now, ingrained, unforgettable.

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