The best books about the history of Paris (and Parisians)

Why am I passionate about this?

I’ve been obsessed with Paris since the age of five. For most of my life I’ve travelled there regularly and read every book on the subject I could find. After working as a beauty editor, I decided to try to make my passion my day job. That inspired me to write Paris Dreaming: What the City of Light Taught Me About Life, Love & Lipstick, and launch a travel consultancy business, Paris for Dreamers. I work with like-minded lovers of Paris, who constantly yearn for the city’s beguiling beauty and fascinating history, and who are always planning their next trip—or visiting Paris virtually, through the pages of a book!


I wrote...

Paris Dreaming: What the City of Light Taught Me About Life, Love & Lipstick

By Katrina Lawrence,

Book cover of Paris Dreaming: What the City of Light Taught Me About Life, Love & Lipstick

What is my book about?

Katrina Lawrence first fell in love with Paris at the age of five, and since then her roads have continually led her back to this most beautiful of cities.

Taking us on a journey around Paris's most spectacular sights, hidden secrets, and most beguiling nooks and crannies, Katrina tells us the story of why this city has been her constant inspiration through all stages of life. Musing on everything Parisian, from femininity to feminism, politics to perfume, and of course, those stylish Parisiennes who captivate us, from Brigitte Bardot and Madame de Pompadour to Simone de Beauvoir and Catherine de Medici, Katrina shares the essential life lessons that Paris has taught her. 

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The books I picked & why

Book cover of Paris: The Biography of a City

Katrina Lawrence Why did I love this book?

If you’re new to the history of Paris, this is an ideal book to start with. It’s a sweeping account of this fabled city’s story, from Roman times to the turn of the twenty-first century, but while lofty in aim it’s charmingly fun to read, the author being adept at packaging wide-ranging information into a fast-paced narrative. One neat feature is the way Jones highlights certain Parisians or Paris locations, giving them breakout sections that allow readers to delve deeper into the likes of Madame de Sévigné, Rose Bertin, and Josephine Baker. You realise that Paris is so much more than the sum of its stones. Yes, it’s about beautiful monuments, but just as much about the people who have breathed such life into Paris that their spirit lives on to this day.

By Colin Jones,

Why should I read it?

3 authors picked Paris as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

From the Roman Emperor Julian, who waxed rhapsodic about Parisian wine and figs, to Henry Miller, who relished its seductive bohemia, Paris has been a perennial source of fascination for 2,000 years. In this definitive and illuminating history, Colin Jones walks us through the city that was a plague-infested charnel house during the Middle Ages, the bloody epicenter of the French Revolution, the muse of nineteenth-century Impressionist painters, and much more. Jones's masterful narrative is enhanced by numerous photographs and feature boxes-on the Bastille or Josephine Baker, for instance-that complete a colorful and comprehensive portrait of a place that has…


Book cover of The Age of Comfort: When Paris Discovered Casual - and the Modern Home Began

Katrina Lawrence Why did I love this book?

Paris has long been a city of creation—but also a city of people who have made these creations their own. Perhaps this is why Paris influences the world; it sells so much more than products; it sells a lifestyle. Francophile and Professor Joan DeJean has written numerous books on French culture, but this is a particular favourite of mine. Head-spinningly well-researched, The Age of Comfort looks at how Paris architects and designers, from the late-seventeenth to late-eighteenth centuries, created the concept of a private life, and all the necessary accompanying interior-design components, from sofas to toilets to baths to desks. It was a century that changed the way Parisians lived, and in turn, changed them as people, before going on to transform the rest of the world. Utterly fascinating. 

By Joan DeJean,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked The Age of Comfort as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

A critically acclaimed historian of France and French culture identifies the moment in modern history when informality and comfort first became priorities, causing a sudden transformation in the worlds of architecture and interior decoration that would last for centuries.

Today it is difficult to imagine a living room without a sofa. When the first sofas on record were delivered in seventeenth-century France, the result was a radical reinvention of interior space. Symptomatic of a new age of casualness and comfort, the sofa ushered in an era known as the golden age of conversation; as the first piece of furniture designed…


Book cover of Dawn of the Belle Epoque

Katrina Lawrence Why did I love this book?

Think of this as the literary equivalent of a Gobelins tapestry, its various threads expertly woven together to tell a grand and colourful story. McAuliffe has expertly intertwined the narratives and anecdotes of some of the most fascinating of Parisians to create a wonderfully engaging overview of the Belle Époque, that fabled and hedonistic between-wars Parisian era. By telling the history of these times through the eyes of the key players who lived—and shaped—these times, McAuliffe has produced a book that almost reads like a novel. It’s a fabulous treatment she also employed for her subsequent books that explored later periods of Paris history: Twilight of the Belle Epoque, When Paris Sizzled, and Paris on the Brink.

By Mary McAuliffe,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Dawn of the Belle Epoque as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

A humiliating military defeat by Bismarck's Germany, a brutal siege, and a bloody uprising-Paris in 1871 was a shambles, and the question loomed, "Could this extraordinary city even survive?" Mary McAuliffe takes the reader back to these perilous years following the abrupt collapse of the Second Empire and France's uncertain venture into the Third Republic. By 1900, Paris had recovered and the Belle Epoque was in full flower, but the decades between were difficult, marked by struggles between republicans and monarchists, the Republic and the Church, and an ongoing economic malaise, darkened by a rising tide of virulent anti-Semitism. Yet…


Book cover of Les Parisiennes: Resistance, Collaboration, and the Women of Paris Under Nazi Occupation

Katrina Lawrence Why did I love this book?

How Parisians survived Nazi Occupation—to what extent they resisted or collaborated—has been debated for decades but Sebba looks through a new lens: What did Parisiennes, specifically, do during these years? She was just in time to interview some key women who, having survived concentration camps, went on to live defiantly long lives. Others wouldn’t speak, still traumatised by their experiences. But Sebba has plenty to work with, and the pace at which she pulls it all together propels this book’s sense of importance. One can’t help but feel relieved that these stories have now been told. Some of it is shameful, sure, but you ultimately remember the tales of until-now-unsung heroines, whose fierce love for their city, above even their own welfare, makes them well deserving of a place in Paris history.

By Anne Sebba,

Why should I read it?

4 authors picked Les Parisiennes as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

“Anne Sebba has the nearly miraculous gift of combining the vivid intimacy of the lives of women during The Occupation with the history of the time. This is a remarkable book.” —Edmund de Waal, New York Times bestselling author of The Hare with the Amber Eyes

New York Times bestselling author Anne Sebba explores a devastating period in Paris's history and tells the stories of how women survived—or didn’t—during the Nazi occupation.

Paris in the 1940s was a place of fear, power, aggression, courage, deprivation, and secrets. During the occupation, the swastika flew from the Eiffel Tower and danger lurked…


Book cover of Left Bank: Art, Passion, and the Rebirth of Paris, 1940-50

Katrina Lawrence Why did I love this book?

While Poirier’s book covers the same period as Sebba’s, the mood is completely different. Her focus is on artists, with a cast that reads as your ultimate dinner-party guest wishlist: Juliette Gréco, Simone de Beauvoir, James Baldwin, Miles Davis... Such creators couldn’t help but salvage something from their war experiences, create a new world on their own terms. Poirier knows that history is made of people. And Paris is a rich source, for it’s a city that has attracted a multitude of movers and shakers for centuries. Poirier shows how such creators can produce much more than art, or a movement—they can mould an entire period. Poirier also knows that this personal telling of history makes reading it more enjoyable; her plotting is on point, her sprinkle of gossipy anecdotes just-so.

By Agnes Poirier,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Left Bank as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

An incandescent group portrait of the midcentury artists and thinkers whose lives, loves, collaborations, and passions were forged against the wartime destruction and postwar rebirth of Paris.

In this fascinating tour of a celebrated city during one of its most trying, significant, and ultimately triumphant eras, Agnès Poirier unspools the stories of the poets, writers, painters, and philosophers whose lives collided to extraordinary effect between 1940 and 1950. She gives us the human drama behind some of the most celebrated works of the 20th century, from Richard Wright’s Native Son, Simone de Beauvoir's The Second Sex, and James Baldwin's Giovanni's…


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Native Nations: A Millennium in North America

By Kathleen DuVal,

Book cover of Native Nations: A Millennium in North America

Kathleen DuVal Author Of Independence Lost: Lives on the Edge of the American Revolution

New book alert!

Why am I passionate about this?

I’m a professional historian and life-long lover of early American history. My fascination with the American Revolution began during the bicentennial in 1976, when my family traveled across the country for celebrations in Williamsburg and Philadelphia. That history, though, seemed disconnected to the place I grew up—Arkansas—so when I went to graduate school in history, I researched in French and Spanish archives to learn about their eighteenth-century interactions with Arkansas’s Native nations, the Osages and Quapaws. Now I teach early American history and Native American history at UNC-Chapel Hill and have written several books on how Native American, European, and African people interacted across North America.

Kathleen's book list on the American Revolution beyond the Founding Fathers

What is my book about?

A magisterial history of Indigenous North America that places the power of Native nations at its center, telling their story from the rise of ancient cities more than a thousand years ago to fights for sovereignty that continue today

Native Nations: A Millennium in North America

By Kathleen DuVal,

What is this book about?

Long before the colonization of North America, Indigenous Americans built diverse civilizations and adapted to a changing world in ways that reverberated globally. And, as award-winning historian Kathleen DuVal vividly recounts, when Europeans did arrive, no civilization came to a halt because of a few wandering explorers, even when the strangers came well armed.

A millennium ago, North American cities rivaled urban centers around the world in size. Then, following a period of climate change and instability, numerous smaller nations emerged, moving away from rather than toward urbanization. From this urban past, egalitarian government structures, diplomacy, and complex economies spread…


5 book lists we think you will like!

Interested in Paris, France, and civilization?

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