French Minister of Culture Fleur Pellerin hasn’t read a book in two years.

French Minister of Culture Fleur Pellerin hasn’t read a book in two years.

by Hugh Gilmore

No, of course not. Why should you? Reading is a personal matter, like bowling. People should not have to bowl, or skeet shoot, or snap their fingers at poetry readings unless they want to. The chic lady pictured above should have the same freedoms the rest of us have. Amen, ’tis the American way. Lots of rights, but few obligations.

Ah, but wait an instant …

What if I told you she’s French, and doesn’t read books but was recently appointed Minister of Culture for France? Her name is Fleur Pellerin. During a recent interview on French national television last week she confessed that she hasn’t read a book in two years.

That’s right. Not a book in two years. Not even “50 Nuances (shades) de Gris” (you know what). In her tasking job as the French Minister of Culture she says she only reads “… a lot of notes, a lot of legal texts, the news, A.F.P. stories … I read very little.” This admission did not go down well with many of her compatriots, France being one of the world’s most literate countries and a major promoter of book culture.

To further stir the French hornet’s nest that resulted from this interview, Mme Pellerin goofed up on the subject of France’s recent Nobel Prize winner for literature, Patrick Modiano. Early in the interview, she told the host that she and M. Modiano had recently shared a lunch where she laughed a lot and found him nice. Oh, how charming, the host uttered. But later, when asked to name a few of her favorite Patrick Modiano books (he’s written 30), Mme Pellerin could not name a single title. Even after she had tweeted a sort of “Rock on, Patrick Modiano” Twitter post when he was announced – to France’s increased literary glory – as winner of the Nobel Prize for a lifetime’s literary work.

The reactions to her honest-but-dismaying confessions were immediate. A writer for the French version of The Huffington Post, Claude Askolovitch, called her lack of literary knowledge “barbaric,” and evidence that she was not fit for her job as Minister of Culture. In fact, he huffed, she should resign. Mr. Askolovitch did not wax his wroth alone, for many were those who joined his indignation.

Ms. Pellerin is popularly referred to as “Fleur” among French Cabinet buffs. (Like America, one has not arrived at the contemporary top unless he or she is known by a single name, preferably one’s first name.) Sometimes called “a rose with thorns,” (a pun) by the media, her origins are the stuff of modern legend. She was born in Seoul, Korea in 1973, abandoned to the streets, saved when but a few days old, and placed in an orphanage. At the age of six months she was adopted by a French couple and educated in France. At the age of 21 (early for France), she received her Master’s degree from ESSEC (École Supérieure des Sciences Économiques et Commerciales), one of the top business schools in the world. Afterward, she graduated from Sciences Po in Paris, the training school of the country’s political elite since 1872.

Not everyone in France is upset that the Minister of Culture does not read books. Numerous columnists rose to her defense, arguing that most French people do not read Patrick Modiano. (He’s hardly known in the U.S.A.) And that, in all honesty, Fleur was refreshingly frank compared to most political cabinet members. Besides, who do you want managing a government budget: a business school graduate, or some mooning poetess?

Ahem. In an informal poll asking the few genuine America-dwelling, French-origin people I know, their reaction to the story was to laugh. The notion of a Minister of Culture who does not read books seemed ridiculous. Others, American born, wondered how someone could live and breathe without the comfort, and wisdom of books. One woman said she thought Fleur was a fraud. Another said, “How does she sleep at night?” When asked for clarification, she said she meant, How can she end her day without the companionship of a book?

My own opinion, on a subject that is none of my business, is that Fleur Pellerin is one of those bright, hard-working young persons a politician wants to have on his team. But where to plug her in? Since she is smart, young, attractive, and oh-so-chic, she was tossed the Ministry of Culture post by a president who does not value that cabinet much.

I also think that Fleur’s bland innocence is what you get, worldwide, when professional schools give little but lip service to the arts. Young Fleur knows, as so many MBA grads do, that success of a certain kind lies in the old mantra of “follow the money.”

Most regular readers of this column would probably agree with me in saying that no matter how busy they are, there’s a corner of their hearts where a certain small candle must always be kept lit. To read by. For one’s own sake, when all the hurly-burly’s done, when the battle’s lost and won.

Hugh Gilmore owns and operates Gilmore’s Books, an old and rare books business, here in Chestnut Hill. He is the author of a story collection, “Scenes from a Bookshop,” and a noir bibliomystery, “Malcolm’s Wine.”