By Bill Diem

Libraries are the original think tanks, said Forrest Alogna, the chairman of the board for the American Library in Paris at its annual gala last week. In antiquity, collections of books attracted scholars who studied them and came up with new thoughts.

The internet and the hand-held telephone computers that dominate urban life today are the result of basic research in the 1950s, he said. Those scientists had no reason to think that their research might result in anything useful; they just wanted to understand.

His argument is that what happens in today’s libraries, including all their activities and services, is preparing social and scientific changes that would be obvious 70 years from now, and maybe not until then.

Zadie Smith, an English writer whose book, White Teeth, is on one of our bookshelves, was the main speaker. Among many things, she said that people who live in her lower-class neighborhood of London know how to live together. “We don’t need gated communities or private police forces to keep our homes safe,” she said. “We live in a community.”

That made me think of Luce and Mackinac counties, where the population is not rich but folks live their lives out safely in the same way.

She talked about a book she likes about two girls, one black and one white, who grow up and have families and lives. The book never says which one has what skin color. That makes us think about racism and how blind people don’t see skin color.

The party where Zadie Smith spoke took place in a fancy restaurant in the middle of the Bois de Boulogna, a huge park at the east side of Paris. There were about 200 people who either made a big contribution, or were invited by someone who did, like me.

The Pré Catelan is a three-star Michelin restaurant, and it served us a wonderful duck breast for dinner. That made me think of how badly duck is treated in America, including back in the day by me. I would shoot a duck home in October, skin it, and cook it to death, when it tasted like leather. Later in Michigan I learned to cook duck better – faster and rare – but I never made a “Dombes duckling with spiced Apicius Sauce.”

Before dinner we were treated to champagne, orange juice and water, along with seductive cocktail snacks from Le Notre, perhaps the best in Paris. Le Notre also provided the little chocolate cubes with a melted center that went with our coffee after dessert.

This party marked the 101st year of the library, which lends real books and audiobooks just like the libraries in Newberry and Curtis. It has events for children, visiting authors, and book clubs, just like the U.P. libraries.

Afterward we were treated to something that is not anywhere in the U.P. Driving home afterward, we passed dozens of hookers standing at the edge of the street, their backs to the forest, their skirts short. Many of them are said to be transvestites. If it hadn’t been so late and I hadn’t been so unsure of the route home, it might have been fun to look at them, but being lost and late, it was a little disturbing.