When Life Imitates Surrealism

Who Made Up These Rules? Vladimir and Estragon?

April 24, 2011By David JaggardC'est Ironique!
The main hall of the Bibliothèque Sainte Geneviève is a marvel of 19th-century French architecture. And the rules for getting into it are a marvel of 21st-century Byzantine bureaucracy. Photo: Ann Chou

Sometimes it’s just too easy. There I am, going about my daily business in Paris while keeping an eye out for something that could qualify as ironic, when suddenly a ready-made topic looms up right in front of me, grabs my arm, stares me down and calls out in a strident voice, literally begging to be made into a “C’est Ironique” article. Then it steals my wallet. Oh no, wait—that’s Parisian pickpockets. But sometimes topics appear unbidden as well.

I have been reading Nairn’s Paris, a wonderful, lamentably out-of-print book about the city, written in the 1960s by the British architecture critic Ian Nairn. It consists mostly of the author’s impressions of his favorite structures, a lot of which are way off the beaten boulevard. To name two: Notre Dame de Travail, the 19th-century steel-girdered church near the Place de Catalogne in Montparnasse, and Passage Reilhac near the Gare de l’Est, parallel to the better-known Passage Brady (but not paralleling Brady in ease of access: Reilhac is closed to the public, but it’s worth a look if you can sneak past the code-protected door).

When Nairn liked something, his praise tended toward the rapturous. He called the Opéra Garnier a “declamatory roulade of allegory that would pump a sense of occasion into the limpest libretto” and the Pont Alexandre III an “unflawed delight from end to end.” But the site that enraptured him most of all in Paris was the main reading room of the Bibliothèque Sainte Geneviève, which stands on the north side of the Place du Panthéon, just across from that big, domed kinda-Greeky-Roman-lookin’ thing they got there. Designed by Henri Labrouste and named after none other than the patron saint of Paris, this is a mother of a library with more than two million books in its catalogue, which they’ll probably get around to alphabetizing some day, and it’s open to the public. Nairn calls it “just about the perfect French building,” “intelligent,” “well ahead of its time” and “above all logical and reasonable.” So, logically and reasonably, I went to check it out.

And there I discovered what has to be the most illogical, unreasonable set of rules ever devised for a nongovernmental institution in France—possibly in the solar system. Library users are divided into three categories, each with the exact same privileges but its own conditions. Get this:

Category 1
People who would like to use the library on an ongoing basis can receive a regular user’s card by presenting an ID and filling out a general information form. The card is delivered immediately and is valid indefinitely, with no renewal necessary. So far, so sensible.

Category 2
People who would like to use the library just for one day can receive a single-day visitor’s card by presenting an ID and filling out the same information form. The card is delivered immediately, but the holder is then banned from returning to the library for one full calendar year after that day. Odd, yes, but brace yourselves.

Category 3
People in certain lines of work, including educators, researchers, journalists, documentalists and some other specialists in specialty fields specified on a specifications sheet available at the reception desk, can receive a special professional user’s card by presenting an ID and filling out the above-mentioned information form, and also submitting a photo, certified proof of their professional status and a copy of a salary statement less than three months old. There’s a one-week waiting period for reviewing the application and the card is then valid for two years, after which it must be renewed.

Hmmm. A question leaps, Baryshnikov-like, to mind. I wouldn’t call it the elephant in the room so much as the tyrannosaur in the tent. And that question is:

What sentient being on God’s godforsaken green globe is ever going to ask for anything other than a regular user’s card? Ever? Ever-ever-ever?

Allow me to point out that, in violation of my habitually lax anything-for-a-punchline principles, I am not altering or exaggerating these rules in any way, as can be verified on the BSG Web site. On the day I went, just to see the interior, with no intention of actually using the library, I applied for and received a regular user’s card in about four minutes, went upstairs, gawked at the infrastructure for about forty minutes (it’s stunning) and left. I have never set foot in the place since, but I’m still a card-carrying member of the Sainte Geneviève logicians club. However, we regular cardholders are subject to yet another rule: according to the library’s Web site, we are expected to update our contact information every “14 or 24 months.”

At the risk of repeating myself: hmmm. “14” and not “12.” “Or” and not “to.” Apparently, if I fail to show up at some point during the 30-day period that falls one year and two months after my registration or, failing that, precisely 10 months later, my contact information will be null and void. Given the capricious nature of the BSG’s policies, I shudder to think what the punishment will be. They’ll probably make me apply for a professional card.

Note: My warm, deep, hearty, heartfelt, humble, sincere, lasting and (obviously) profuse thanks go out to Tom Reeves of Discover Paris and Paris Insights for his kind, generous, timely, thorough, efficient and (obviously) much appreciated help in finding background material for this article.

Reader Al Teich writes: “So funny, and so typical. It brought back memories of encounters with the French post office when I was living in Paris as a graduate student in the 1960s and mailing (or trying to mail) packages back to the U.S.”

Contributor Nick Hammond writes: “David’s very amusing piece struck a chord with me! Never try getting into the Manuscript Room at the Bibliothèque Nationale on Rue Richelieu: at least three forms need to be signed to get in (even with a reader’s card) and another five (involving trips to several different desks, all manned by sour-faced personnel) to get out! The Bibliothèque de l’Arsenal, by contrast, is a breeze, with the unexpected bonus of polite, friendly staff.”



An album of David Jaggard’s comic compositions is now available for streaming on Spotify and Apple Music, for purchase (whole or track by track) on iTunes and Amazon, and on every other music downloading service in the known universe, under the title “Totally Unrelated.”

Note to readers: David Jaggard’s e-book Quorum of One: Satire 1998-2011 is available from Amazon as well as iTunes, iBookstore, Nook, Reader Store, Kobo, Copia and many other distributors.

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