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The Discovery of France: A Historical Geography from the Revolution to the First World War

3.99  ·  Rating Details  ·  1,263 Ratings  ·  190 Reviews
A narrative of exploration—full of strange landscapes and even stranger inhabitants—that explains the enduring fascination of France. While Gustave Eiffel was changing the skyline of Paris, large parts of France were still terra incognita. Even in the age of railways and newspapers, France was a land of ancient tribal divisions, prehistoric communication networks, and pre- ...more
Kindle Edition, UK Edition, 496 pages
Published October 17th 2008 by W. W. Norton & Company (first published 2007)
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This isn't an armchair travel book, it's an armchair time travel book. The use of the singular in the title is potentially misleading. It is the result of the author's discovery of France on bicycle and in the archives (but not both at the same time I hasten to add to reassure any anxious library lovers). It is also a book about how many times and how many ways France has been discovered.

So we have the two men who tried to discover the boundary between the Langue d'Oc and the Langue d'Oil, one d
This was fantastically fascinating and so just my thing. Review posted in roundup of fantastic books I've read in the last few months on my blog:
Francophile that I am, I will never see France quite the same way after having read Robb's fascinating historical geography (or geographical history)of France up to WWI. Almost every page, in fact, almost every paragraph proves chock-full of interesting "facts" and authorial observations. There are chapters on languages (French having been a minority, i.e., "foreign" language a mere hundred years ago); animals (the "60 million Others" who also inhabited the Hexagon); maps, roads, travel in all i ...more
Dec 22, 2015 Gwern rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Discovery of France charts the transition of the region covered by modern France into the unified cultural/political/geographic entity of today. This is incredibly interesting because from our perspective, we have forgotten (if we ever knew) what went into the process of taking the thousands of villages and regions differing in all sorts of ways, and crushing them into the relatively homogeneous high-tech culture of today - unifying languages, political systems, forms of transportation, religion ...more
Elizabeth Theiss
Feb 25, 2013 Elizabeth Theiss rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: france
My deep love for France and the French is not based on deGaulle's France as a great nation but rather on its profound diversity of its language, culture, cuisine and mode de vie. Every region, every village, is unique because of its soil, what it grows, the history of its people. While the blender of globalization has been homogenizing culture in larger cities, one can still find villages that build the Feu de St. Jean at midsummer and watch the young men leap over the flames. Ancient dances, re ...more
Feb 08, 2009 Djewesbury rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: social-history
This is a fascinating book, full of the perfectly unexpected. It is possibly the best piece of social history I've ever read. The accepted version of modern French history relies on a linear story of gradual and natural centralisation: the organic creation of a nation conceived of, in its essential form several hundreds of years ago, and striving ever since towards its own self-realisation. Robb overturns this view and demonstrates again and again that it is a miracle that modern France ever cam ...more
Rick Skwiot
Mar 12, 2014 Rick Skwiot rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
According to author Graham Robb, a scant few hundred years ago France consisted largely of suspicious and superstitious pagan peasants who spoke discrete tongues (none of which was French), ate unpalatable and malnutritious food, and seldom ventured beyond a day’s walk of their homes. (Even today, Robb notes, some 86 percent of French people have never flown on an airplane.)

However, in the intervening years France has somehow come to be known as a rational, monolinguistic land of art, sophistic
Jul 27, 2013 Mackay rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: history, france
Three point five stars, really, because I have the same sort of love/irritation with this book that Robb himself seems to feel for France.

This is not a traditional history--it's not the story of grand men doing great and terrible things, thinking new and surprising thoughts, or inventing the Culture of the West that France, in large part, created from the 17th century onward.

In some ways, it's a folk history, told through the small places in the heart of la France profonde. As such, it's a nece
Carrie Chappell
Jul 31, 2015 Carrie Chappell rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Robb's theory, so far as I can see it, turns on the notion that in the process of discovery one eventually knows destruction as well. As soon as an area is mapped, charted, understood by its resources, then there are the people wanting to move to it, use it all up, and charge others to see it. Then, it becomes a politic, and whether it's tourism or daily life, a whole space is lost to what was either found by people looking to expand their reach or some gentle ego wishing to understand better hi ...more
May 19, 2008 Chrissie rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: history, france
This is a very nteresting book, but it is not at all how I imagined it after reading the Barnes & Nobles review. So beware! The facts presented in the book do NOT seem to be collected from the author's extensive bicycling throughout France, but rather reaped from extensive library research. It is primarily a history book, albeit filled with lots of interesting information. Lots of information on mapping. At times I was drowned by all the facts - a bit of editing would have definitely helped. ...more
This is a delightfully eclectic book, with piles and piles of surprising information about just-pre-modern daily life. The way distance shifted between eras and technologies, the way food and work and money functioned or didn't in this vast landscape before the state came along to make sense of them, the oddness and diversity of the way people moved and lived before, well, more practical universal solutions became available. It's a bit meandering and tended to lose my attention for weeks at a ti ...more
Robert  Baird
As geographers go, Robb is an excellent writer. The book is fully of interesting anecdotes and is easy to move through. The letdown for me was the organization- it is divided by topics, rather than by region or epoch. Robb mentions a litany of regions and places in France, and describes them with applaudable intimacy. Nevertheless, the reader is left with a mostly undeveloped sense of any one particular place, because he seems to be describing them all at once.
Mar 22, 2011 Liz rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Excellent book recommended to me by my BFF Frannie! If you're at all interested in France I would tell you to get and read this book - Aubri, are you listening? I was amazed reading about France. It wasn't anything like I had ever imagined. Thanks for the reference Frannie.
May 28, 2014 Brandon rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
This is one of the best books I've ever come across on French history. Despite a minor in European history, I felt like I knew very little of what is discussed in Robb's book.

Some highlights include the chapter on just how many languages were prevalent in France until the 20th century, a ghastly description of traders carrying babies hundreds if miles to Paris doped on wine (in the 1780s), and the way peasants cheated taxmen by loading their dogs with salt in another village, leaving them with a
Ben Dutton
Feb 06, 2012 Ben Dutton rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Graham Robb is an expert on nineteenth century French literature, noted for his biographies of Victor Hugo, Balzac and Rimbaud. In this, his history of that country in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, as France was beginning to discover her nationality, Robb comes to realise he knows less than he should. He says in his introduction: “I began to explore the country on which I was supposed to be an authority… my professional knowledge of the country reflected the metropolitan view of write ...more
Kate Stedman
Jun 07, 2012 Kate Stedman rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
I am going to put in this review by Brenda Wineapple of the NY Times:

“Before the revolution,” it turns out, “the name ‘France’ was often reserved for the small mushroom-shaped province centered on Paris.” What’s more, beyond that relatively small oasis, “France was a land of deserts” — of huge vacant spaces that had still not been accurately mapped in their entirety and that most natives never even tried to explore. (As late as the mid-19th century, it seems, “few people could walk far from thei
A wonderful book: well-written, spiced with humor, chock full of anecdotes, wide-ranging, eye-opening... and difficult to do justice to in a review. If you peruse other reviews here on Goodreads or on the back-cover of the paperback edition you may be reminded of the elephant as described by the blind men: totally different depending upon which part of the animal they touched. So it is with "The Discovery of France". Depending upon the reviewer it is: a collection of bizarre anecdotes and intere ...more
This is one of my favorite books ever. It changed the way I viewed history and the way I viewed France. Every page was surprising and exhausting. Did you know they had dog-powered machinery in France? Where the dogs trained other dogs how to use it? That one of the first geographers of France was killed as a sorcerer? That there were orgies in Notre Dame? That Paris has always been a polyglot city, since people from different provinces did not speak the same language? That the government did not ...more
Jan 14, 2015 Pieter rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: geschiedenis
Very interesting story about the diversity of France before the French Revolution, or even before World War I. A substantial part of the country did not understand French to name one. Only after stringent directives from Paris, conscription and a railway network could bring Paris to "la France profonde" (which was not that French after all). The book is full of anecdotes (Lourdes, the role of pets in the household, the lack of "French cuisine" apart from Paris region) and funny stories to read. ...more
Aug 09, 2012 Therese rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Recommends it for: Francophiles, linguists, general readers
A fascinating look at how French culture, language, identity, and borders took shape, particularly during the 1700s and 1800s. I read some chapters and skimmed others, but on the whole I was surprised at how readable, charming, engaging, and well-written this was. Granted, I came to it with low expectations, since anything with the word "geography" in the title I automatically assume will be a slog to get through. But the author knows how to tell a story, and he weaves together a fabric of strik ...more
Mar 13, 2016 Tore rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Excellent, very interesting, who knew that a lot of France was virtually unknown, until late in the 19th century? You will learn a lot you almost certainly didn't know beforehand, reading this. Highly recommended.
David Ball
I love France too, but the somewhat unfocused lack of direction, the superficial treatment of some topics and detail of others, the disconnection between some of the illustrations and the text made for an uneven concoction of the dull and the interesting. That the stunning Verdon gorge remained undiscovered until 1906 is remarkable, but why no illustration? Or the Tarn gorges? Geography is about places rather than words. Well researched and written, but for a comparable attempt at social history ...more
THE book to ruin your usual cliches about "liberté, égalité, fraternité" and fill your head with doubts concerning the myth of national identity.
Martin Witchard
I bought this book thinking it would be about where the French people came from, their migration into the area known as France and their history however this book was more interesting than that.

The author traces the realisation of modern France, starting his arc in the 18th century and tracing the pioneering mapmakers who ventured into what were 'wilds' of that country and slowly but surely discovered it. Along the journey were countless individuals who mapped and traveled France slowly but sur
Spike Gomes
Dec 16, 2015 Spike Gomes rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
I enjoyed Robb's Literary biographies a few years back, so I decided to give his book on the "Discovery of France" a read. While I wasn't disappointed in the coverage, I was dismayed by the editorializing of his political views under the guise of making historical parallels, though I wonder how much of it was heartfelt, and how much of it was to signal and flatter the main market for this sort of non-fiction; New York Times and The Guardian reading Bobos who love to have their values reified in ...more
Jul 02, 2015 Toni is currently reading it  ·  review of another edition
Facinating! I started reading this book because I am researching Father Eugene Chirouse who was born near Lyon in 1826, and became a beloved missionary priest in the Pacific Northwest. I wanted to understand how his early life might have contributed to his success with communicating with the natives of this area. The geography of this region at that time was very difficult to navigate. Fr. Chiruse was a linguist, who developed a dictionary for the Lashootseed language, administered medical suppo ...more
Mary Catelli
Apr 30, 2014 Mary Catelli rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: history-modern
Did you know that in nineteenth century France, most Frenchmen did not speak French?

That Fenimore Cooper visited France and found the roads full as bad as the worst in the United States? (Which meant those on the frontier, for the US) He shrewdly observed that the corvee -- enforced labor on the roads -- was generally enforced only when the local noble came by.

That at the time of the Reign of Terror most French peasants didn't even know that the king had been executed?

A fascinating book, if horr
Jan 31, 2014 Cmd rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
This is a great book, not about the France of myth, but the France that actually was. The popular myth, as with many coutries, is of some eternal national tribe from which all true countrymen are descended. It's true for Europe and with France too (Much as I enjoy them, the Asterix comics perpetuate this. As the book points out in great detail France at the start of the 19th Century was a country of many pays, or countries. They were distinctive and largely unknown outside Paris. Most Frenchmen ...more
Apr 17, 2016 Dave rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
Don't read this book. It's very good. It is a sociological history of France between the 1840s and World War I that tells you everything you want to know about just what a miserable, backwater place most of France was then. Out side of Paris, I'm thinking that being in the US West during this time period must have been much more civilized. Wild lost children, little villages where visitors were often killed for showing up, a road and communications system that barely existed. Whole areas of Fran ...more
Nov 22, 2008 Michel rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Recommended to Michel by: Kate Heeringa
I had no idea I would learn so much about a country I knew so well — thought I did, anyway!
A guide to modern French history, or rather "geography-in-the-making", which will you like history, and geography, and France. What a great teacher this guy is.
I hope he's going to write a sequel, and a prequel!
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The Discovery of France 2 23 Sep 11, 2014 10:08PM  
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Graham Macdonald Robb FRSL (born June 2, 1958) is a British author.

Robb was born in Manchester and educated at the Royal Grammar School Worcester and Exeter College, Oxford, where he studied Modern Languages. He earned a PhD in French literature at Vanderbilt University.

He won the 1997 Whitbread Book Award for best biography (Victor Hugo) and was shortlisted for the Samuel Johnson Prize for Rimbau
More about Graham Robb...

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