The best books to savour the history of Paris

The Books I Picked & Why

The Invention of Paris: A History in Footsteps

By Eric Hazan, David Fernbach

Book cover of The Invention of Paris: A History in Footsteps

Why this book?

Hazan knows every nook and cranny of his city. He exults in the buildings and architecture, but his main subject is the people who wove the fabric of its diverse communities and their histories. He takes us on a historical journey that passes from the salons of the old aristocracy to the artisanal districts where popular, revolutionary activism was born. Hazan makes no attempt to conceal his left-wing sympathies, but he is equally at home admiring the Art Nouveau gems of the well-heeled 16th arrondissement as he is enjoying the vibrant, ethnically diverse northern districts of the city. Hazan’s love of the human life of Paris shines through.

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Les Miserables

By Norman Macafee, Victor Hugo, Lee Fahnestock

Book cover of Les Miserables

Why this book?

At first sight, Les Misérables is undeniably a hefty and rather daunting novel, but any initial hesitation will soon dissipate. Set in the years after the Napoleonic Wars and culminating in the republican uprising of June 1832, Victor Hugo’s novel – written between 1845 and 1862 – explores the great questions of law, redemption, love, revolution, and the grinding poverty of his day. At the same time, Hugo delves into the Parisian past and evokes the cityscape, the streets, and the histories of some of its neighbourhoods. 

There is even a chapter on the Paris sewers, through which the hero Jean Valjean escapes, carrying the wounded Marius to safety.  Hugo gives medieval Paris similar treatment in Notre Dame de Paris – the Hunchback of Notre Dame

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Paris: The Biography of a City

By Colin Jones

Book cover of Paris: The Biography of a City

Why this book?

The subtitle Biography of a City disarmingly conceals the author’s success in telling the story of Paris while connecting it with the history of France as a whole. This history skilfully threads together the construction and growth of Paris as a city with its politics, its everyday life, and the humanity that has populated its streets and neighbourhoods. This is above all a well-paced narrative that captures the evolution of the city and its people – in turns turbulent, cultured, contentious, and refined.

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Parisians: An Adventure History of Paris

By Graham Robb

Book cover of Parisians: An Adventure History of Paris

Why this book?

This ‘adventure history’ presents in a dazzlingly kaleidoscopic manner the city’s past since the years just before the Revolution of 1789. From a young Napoleon finding his way (and losing his virginity) in the 1780s to the author’s own explorations of the northern suburbs and the district of La Chapelle, this is far from being a conventional narrative. Instead, the story of Paris and its people is captured in snapshots: the shady police agent Eugène-François Vidocq hunting down criminals, the photographic skills of Charles Marville documenting old, disappearing Paris in the 1860s, the first Métro journey in 1900, Juliette Gréco’s arrest by the Gestapo during the Nazi occupation, an assassination attempt on Charles de Gaulle…

This is a history of Paris like no other.   

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Paris: Capital of the World

By Patrice Higonnet

Book cover of Paris: Capital of the World

Why this book?

At first sight, the title evokes a certain Gallic hauteur, but it does not take long to see that this is simply a foretaste of the rich exploration of the myths of Paris – how the great city has been depicted, imagined, and perceived over time. This is the story of Paris as the capital of modernity, art, fashion, revolution, sex, pleasure, science, and crime. With writers, artists, poets, and visitors as witnesses, and lavishly illustrated, this is a colourful meander through the myths and illusions that have shaped the many images of Paris. 

Whatever the actual realities beneath these multiple faces, asks Higonnet at one point, ‘who could, in our culturally unanchored world, imagine life without this city?’    

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