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The Discovery of France: A Historical Geography Paperback – October 17, 2008

4.3 out of 5 stars 127 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

Starred Review. France is often regarded as the center of elegant civilization, so it's surprising to find that as late as 1890, most of the population was far from civilized—outside the confines of sophisticated Paris, as noted biographer Robb explains in his riveting exploration of France's historical geography, great swathes of countryside were terra incognita: dark places inhabited by illiterate tribes professing pre-Christian beliefs and lethally hostile to outsiders. They spoke not French but regional dialects; much of the country had not been accurately mapped; and many in the rural areas lacked surnames. The author himself embarked on a 14,000-mile bicycle tour of the France passed over in tourist guides. The result is a curious, engrossing mix of personal observation, scholarly diligence and historical narrative as Robb discusses the formation of both the French character and the French state. Robb's biographies of Victor Hugo, Rimbaud and Balzac were all selected by the New York Times as among the best books of the year, an accolade that assures a select readership will be eager to pack his newest alongside their Michelin guides. 8 pages of b&w illus, maps. (Oct.)
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved. --This text refers to the Hardcover edition.


An astute sociological catalogue of France's changing idea of itself....will delight even the most indolent armchair traveler. -- France Telegraph

Scintillating and resourceful. -- John Leonard, Harper's

This is, above all, a careful and tolerant book: impossible to think of better qualities in a traveling companion. -- Ruth Scurr, The Nation

[Robb] penetrates so skillfully into the murky, often misunderstood history of [France]. -- Booklist

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Product Details

  • Paperback: 496 pages
  • Publisher: W. W. Norton & Company; 9/17/08 edition (October 17, 2008)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0393333647
  • ISBN-13: 978-0393333640
  • Product Dimensions: 5.5 x 1.2 x 8.3 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 14.4 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.3 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (127 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #232,735 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

By Izaak VanGaalen on November 12, 2007
Format: Hardcover
France has always been a highly centralized country. Paris, like the Sun King, has always been the center around which lesser entities revolved. As a result, most histories of France focused on Paris, the political, economic, cultural, artistic, and just about everything else center of French life.

Graham Robb, an expert in French literature with biographies of Balzac and Hugo to his credit, has written an excellent history of France as seen from the provinces and from the seat of a bicycle. Let me explain. Robb peddled some 14,000 miles over a ten year period studying French rural culture. His original intention was to write a historical guidebook, but in the process of going off the beaten path he discovered the cultural and linguistic richness of the provinces.

France's centralizing process began before the Revolution with Louis XIV, who started to impose the cultural and linguistic norms of Paris and the Ile-de-France region on the rest of France. The Jacobins and Napoleon continued the process by extending Paris' administrative units throughout the country. Jargon-inclined literary critics have termed this gradual takeover as the colonization of the interior.

Robb learned from his travels that the centralization process was never as rapid or as complete as previously thought. In 1800, only 11% of the population spoke French (the official Parisian version) and a hundred years later only about 20% spoke it. Aside from separate languages such as Basque and Breton, there were 55 dialects and hundreds of sub-dialects. It was not until World War I - where this story ends - that it could be said that French, as we know it today, became the universal language within France itself.
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Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
This book has wonderful qualities that I am certain will be picked up by other reviewers. But I would like to add the following. This is the most profound examination of how nationality is enforced on a group of people, with the internal colonization process and the stamping out of idiosyncratic traits. As someone suspicious of government and state control, I was wondering how France did so well in spite of having a big government. This book gave me the answer: it took a long time for the government and the "nation" to penetrate the depth of deep France, "la France profonde". It was not until recently that French was spoken by the majority of the citizens. Schools taught French but it was just like Greek or Latin: people forgot it right after they finished their (short) school life. For a long time France's villages were unreachable.
A great book, a great investigation.
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Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
One would have thought that while the American wild west was being settled, all of Europe had been sedate and blissful for centuries. Not so, as Graham Robb tells us in his wonderful new book, "The Discovery of France". Where a French national identity took years to build and a World War to cement, the different "pays" that loosely made up an amalgam of France had long been in evidence, if not for all to see. The journey to become one country took centuries.

Robb offers a wide and deep approach to the "discovery" of France. From the much-maligned cagots to the multi-cultural patois of the different villages and towns, the author points out that discrimination was the life-blood of tribal France. How the country became unified is the central core of the book and Robb investigates such things as how animals were viewed, why visitors (and later, "touristes") helped to baste the country together and even how the bicycle changed the course of modern France. It's quite an undertaking!

The highlight of "The Discovery of France", apart from the wonders that unfold, is the enjoyable narrative style with which Robb writes. While plunging into the depths of history over a wide range of topics, the author manages to keep the flow going nicely. This is not a quick read for a rainy day but one that takes necessary time to absorb what he transmits. The amount of information gleaned is remarkable...this is a man who knows France and is happy to compare notes. "The Discovery of France" is a thoughtful and extremely well-gathered book. I highly recommend it and congratulate Graham Robb for doing such an outstanding job in presenting it.
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Format: Hardcover
Truth be told, as a Francophile, nothing would've stopped me from getting this book. The modern French are not like you and I, 17th-19th century Frenchmen are in another galaxy altogether. Very few, hell I can't think of one outside of Peter Mayle's Provence collection, deals with the French culture outside of Ile-de-France. Graham Robb does a favor with this book for Francophiles hungry for English books on French history and life that isn't about DeGaulle, Napoleon, or Paris. The book is about the French before they became "French".

As such, the focus becomes mainly on the population of France before the 20th century, mainly, overwhelmingly rural. That means a story of a poor, illiterate, superstitious, and excuse for me saying this, hilarious population. One passage revealed to me the possible source of the 35-hour workweek. "Farm workers rarely worked more than two hundred days a year. Factory workers rarely worked more than two hundred and sixty days. (p. 101)" You can say that the French people are working harder today than ever before!

The pervasive influence of French rural life continue with the country today. Like the seasonal nature of French harvest. By the time winter rolls around, extreme boredom sets in (ennui). Robb makes the connection that under this circumstances, the craftsmanship we come to associate with the French arose, not only to bide the time, but also as an economic necessity.

France is a vast country, and Robb's France encompasses all regions from Brittany to Aquitane. The book to me is a window to these other places that very few works are written about in English.
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