The history of Paris from “earliest times” until tomorrow.
Jones (History/Warwick Univ.; The Great Nation, 2003, etc.) opens with Julius Caesar and winds through antiquity toward the Middle Ages, giving us town-gown conflict in a Left Bank tavern at the opening of the 13th century to underscore the venerable roots of Parisian students’ obstreperousness. Passing through the Reformation, which shook 16th-century Paris, the narrative finally arrives at more familiar history: divine-right monarchs, Enlightenment, Revolution. Familiar, yes, but Jones provides all sorts of interesting tidbits. Louis XV felt ill-at-ease in the great city; he believed Parisians called him Louis the Well-Hated. During the Enlightenment, Parisians spent about three million livres a year on coffee—even more than they spent on cheese. A sobering look at the 20th century leads to the city’s present-day problems: industrial development, architectural conservation and the relationship between urban center and its suburbs, to name a few. But Paris, the author maintains, is unlikely to be defeated. Jones organizes his history chronologically, but gray-shaded “Feature Boxes” break the chronology to “operate like close-ups, fast-forward anticipations or rewind-retrospections.” For example, the first restaurants appeared on the Parisian scene in the late-18th century. Since they continue to shape Parisian culture, the chapter on the 1780s includes a Feature Box summarizing the history of dining out from then until now. It’s an understandable attempt to circumvent some of the problems with writing such sweeping history, but the boxes seem too gimmicky and are mostly a distraction rather than an embellishment. Meanwhile, the prose is altogether too self-consciously whimsical: apologizing for any of the book’s flaws, Jones demurs that he hopes nonetheless it “will contain enough of interest to manage a Michelin Guide recommendation: vaut le détour.” Finally, it seems odd that so long an overview has so little to say about Parisian women; at the very least, their key role in the French Revolution deserves mention.
Imperfect but, still, entertaining and informative.