How to Read in a Crowd

August 1st, 2017

How to Behave in a Crowd is beautifully narrated from the point of view of Isidore Mazal, the youngest of six overachieving siblings in a big, eccentric family living in a small French town. Isidore doesn't quite fit in with his precocious, emotionally stunted siblings. Berenice, Aurore, and Leonard are on track to have doctorates by age twenty-four. Jeremie performs with a symphony, and Simone, older than Isidore by only eighteen months, expects a great career as a novelist. In fact, she has already put Isidore to work on her biography. The only time they leave their rooms is to gather on the old, stained couch and dissect prime-time television dramas in light of Aristotle's Poetics. Isidore has never skipped a grade or written a dissertation. If he is noticed at all, he is seen as the simple one—sensitive and kind—and, by contrast, almost normal. He understands things the others don't and asks questions they fear to ask. So when tragedy strikes the Mazal family, Isidore is the only one to recognize how everyone is struggling with their grief, and perhaps the only one who can help them—if he doesn't run away from home first. Camille Bordas will discuss How to Behave in a Crowd on Thursday, 8/15, 6pm at the Co-op.


In How to Behave in a Crowd, Isidore says of his 5 siblings that they're constantly reading: "When they did go out, it was only to keep doing what they'd been doing indoors, which was reading or, if their eyes got tired, talking to each other about what they'd read." Simone chafes the skin off her elbows by spending too much time reading in bed on her stomach. Yet Isidore is mostly vague when it comes to naming the books that are actually read. I happen to know a little bit about that. Here goes:

 ***

Simone's Reading List

Even though she criticizes most everybody's, Simone doesn't end up talking much about her own taste in books, but something tells me she has read these titles many times. 

Your Ticket Is No Longer Valid, by Romain Gary

Geek Love, by Katherine Dunn

I Served the King Of England, by Bohumil Hrabal

Gypsy's Curse, by Harry Crews

The Notebook, the Proof, and the Third Lie, by Agota Kristof

Autoportrait, by Edouard Levé

 ***

Berenice and Aurore, in the midst of getting their PhDs, would be reading way too obscure and in any event out-of-print books for us to get into their lists.

 ***

Leonard's Reading List

Though Leonard is writing his dissertation as well, he has an academic library that I think is approachable and should appeal to anyone vaguely interested in human beings, since he's versed in the ethnography of daily processes, common interactions, unremarkable lives.

Presentation of Self in Everyday Life and Behavior in Public Places, by Erving Goffman - This is where How To Behave In a Crowd's title came from, as I read this book in French, and its title in translation is "How to Behave in Public Places".

Gypsy World: The Silence of the Living and the Voices of the Dead, by Patrick Williams - About how (and why) the Gypsies of France (the "Manouches") don't talk about their dead, burn their belongings, never return to where they died to camp. The French title is simply: "We Don't Talk about That."

An Invitation to Reflexive Sociology, by Bourdieu et Wacquant

History of the Grandparents I Never Had, by Ivan Jablonka - I don't know about Leonard, but this is possibly the best history book I've ever read.

 ***

Jeremie's Reading List

Jeremie barely talks. He's the only one who isn't studying in the Humanities, but he's still said to read quite a lot. For some reason, I believe him to have a thing for westerns and violence.

The Sisters Brothers, by Patrick DeWitt

Blood Meridian, by Cormac McCarthy

The Instructions, by Adam Levin

Europeana, by Patrick Ourednik

 ***

Lastly: Isidore. Isidore doesn't read much, but I think of Pacheco's children narrators as his cool Mexican cousins, so if you liked Izzie, you should go and read Pacheco's only collection to have been translated in English ASAP:

Battles in the Desert & Other Stories, by José Emilio Pacheco


About the author: Camille Bordas is the author of two previous novels in French, Les treize desserts and Partie commune. Her fiction has appeared in The New Yorker.  Born in France and raised in Mexico City and Paris, she now lives in Chicago.

Posted in: