A host of literate Americans, from Ben Franklin to Dave Barry, go mostly gaga over Paris.
There’s a name for the spirit of this uneven collection—topophilia, love of place. These pieces are old familiars, but for many, their shopworn quality has burnished their power rather than dimmed it. A.J. Liebling took a date to Montparnasse, which, “although not a long walk from the Quarter, had all the attributes of a foreign country,” while David Sedaris seemed rarely to leave the movie house: “Aside from the occasional trip to the flea market, my knowledge of Paris is limited to what I learned in Gigi.” Much humor follows: Art Buchwald, Mark Twain, Dave Barry, who has a delightfully goofy conversation with a waiter, in French (“Good day. I suspect you are an American.” “But I am not wearing the sneakers!” “OK, Mr. Smarty Pants, pronounce the word ‘Rouen’ ”) and rubs shoulders with T.S. Eliot, who appears to have sat on a broomstick when he got to the city: “The right way is to take it as a place and a tradition, rather than as a congeries of people who are mostly futile and timewasting.” Thomas Jefferson figured that “had there been no queen, there would have been no revolution,” and Saul Bellow understood that even “God would be perfectly happy in France. . . . Surrounded by unbelievers, He, too, could relax toward evening, just as thousands of Parisians do in their favorite cafes.” Absurdly, food gets short shrift: even with such treasures to choose from, Lee has selected forgettable material and squandered her M.F.K. Fisher opportunity on something that can seem only, if graciously, understandable as some insider’s joke.
Not that Paris needs more lovers, but it’s good to know that she still overwhelms all, even the comics.