i.m. George Whitman (1913-2011)

All cultures have names for moments in time and space we could have never imagined coming together until they do: some call them coincidences, others call them convergences, others, simply, fate. When they do strike us, however, we have no choice but to sit up and take note, and — to my mind — be grateful to witness some aspect of the inner working of the world briefly revealed, for however long we are afforded the chance.

It is with great sadness, but with greater appreciation, that I note the passing of George Whitman earlier this month, the founder of Shakespeare and Company Books in Paris. George lived to be 98, passing just two days after his birthday. More extensive obituaries are available in other outlets, but for those who never knew him, George was, in the truest sense of the word, a saint: single-minded in his dedication to a happier, more joyful world; radical in his approach, seeing a bookshop as a beacon of cultural and political activism; and most famously, unquestioning in his hospitality, taking in tens of thousands of guests (affectionately called ‘tumbleweeds’) under the roof of the bookshop, where one could stay as long as one needed, but the only requirement in return was to read a book a day. And try to show equal hospitality to the bedbugs, which anyone who stays there more than a night will meet.

We met him once, several years ago, on the second of the two Golden Hour tours as Forest Publications. Paris was the third of our five performances that month; having performed there a year earlier on another memorable night, we knew well in advance that it would be the highlight of the tour. It was, absolutely — everyone, from musicians to poets to raconteurs — performed beautifully to a standing-room only crowd, we shared wine and company on the quai late into the night, and George, who rarely came downstairs from his apartment during events, even made a brief appearance. Though we only spoke briefly, we knew it was a great honor to be able to meet him; afterwards, we saw him sitting in the upstairs window, listening to the music that our guitarists, Jed Milroy, Hailey Beavis, and Billy Liar, played until the bookstore closed.

Which is why, several years later, I’m given so much pause for thought upon his passing, and about a further debt of gratitude I owe George. While I still would have written The Bella anyway, its writing was hastened by the incentive provided just over a year ago with the Paris Literary Prize organized by Shakespeare and Company, an occasion that served to get the book going much sooner than it might otherwise have done. Working on it over the course of this past year, I hoped for it to be published on the anniversary of the day on which the book was set — December 15, 2009 — but had no idea that, as the book was in its final stages, George was in his, too.

George passed on Wednesday, December 14. The Bella appeared on Thursday, December 15. I’m still struggling to understand how this could happen, but realize also that understanding may in some sense be futile. Merely to be grateful for George’s work over the course of his lifetime, and the ongoing work of Shakespeare and Company, is, for now, enough.

This paragraph comes from the acknowledgments page: it feels appropriate to reprint it here.

This book, originally conceived in response to encouragement provided by Shakespeare and Company Books in Paris, was published in its first edition the day following George Whitman’s passing – and so it is dedicated in part to him, his inspiration to countless writers and travelers, and his vision which endures to this day. May his admonition hang over each of our doors: ‘Be not inhospitable to strangers, lest they be angels in disguise.’

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