There’s one place in Paris that can make me giggle just to think of it. It’s not a comedy theatre, humorous artwork or playful museum. In fact, it’s a very serious place. Constructed in the 1980s by President François Mitterrand to replace its much smaller predecessor and house every book published in France, the Bibliothèque Nationale de France is a highly professional structure. Located in a modern area of the 13th arrondissement, the BNF has a huge central courtyard, flanked by four towers shaped like open books. Beneath this flat top lies the library itself, a huge storage and study space constantly filled with students, academics and writers.
The collection is unrivalled, and the desks are perfect for a long day’s research, in dark wood with individual lamps and backdrops of countless, beautiful French-language tomes. (However, I usually prefer to study in the lovely Bibliothèque du Film inside the Cinémathèque Française, just across the river). The BNF is primarily a library and research space, of course. But it also houses an excellent museum showcasing all kinds of literary and cultural exhibitions drawn from its collection.
I realise none of this sounds funny at all.
So why does the sleek, sophisticated, demure Bibliothèque Nationale make me laugh? Well, that large central courtyard I told you about, in which multiple escalators leading down to the library entrances are set, is made of an impossibly slippery wood. Whenever it rains, as it so frequently does in Paris, trying to enter the BNF becomes a kind of extreme sport. Students, staff, professors, journalists, museum goers- no one is safe. And the slip-ups are not minor ones. There is something about the long strips of slippery wood that sends people flying through the air like they’ve stepped on a banana peel. I myself have set my books (and once my computer) airborne as I hurtled toward the ground.
I’m not evil; I don’t actually laugh at the idea of people getting hurt. But I do laugh at the memory of my own spectacular falls, which left me with just a trophy bruise or two. And mostly, I laugh at the fact that Mitterrand put so much effort and money into constructing a library for the Nation of France- a serious, seriously-expensive space- only to be defeated by the rain.
I love the BNF for its extreme entranceways because they remind us that after all, even in the most serious places, we shouldn’t take ourselves too seriously.