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

3.98 of 5 stars 3.98  ·  rating details  ·  1,008 ratings  ·  172 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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(showing 1-30 of 2,508)
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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
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
Elizabeth Theiss
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
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
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
Rick Skwiot
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
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
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
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.
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
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
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
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 4 of 5 stars  ·  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
Mary Catelli
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
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.
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
Nov 22, 2008 Michel rated it 4 of 5 stars  ·  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!
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
Dave Peticolas
Excellent -- a meandering tour through the modern history of France, mostly sans royalty.
Michael Boerm
Good look at the expansion of France from the Paris region to its modern-day boundaries. Most chapters deal w/ socio-cultural topics rather than political ones. The most interesting chapter is the one on the expansion of the railways through the "desert" of central France. Even today there are few rail routes through the heart of the country b/c it is so sparsely populated and the geography is a challenge. (The line from Clermont-Ferrand to Nimes, though long, is absolutely beautiful. Skip the T ...more
Andrew Ives
Rather long and wordy, this book blows hot and cold in its ability to keep the readers' interest, with some chapters such as those on the variance of French language, Cassini's map-making efforts, local legends, The Tour de France and several others being much more interesting than certain other chapters such as road-building, WW1, the onset of tourism and especially the 'cutting room floor' material that ends the book on rather a sour note.

Well-written it may be, but it is, for the most part,
Mar 11, 2009 Jan rated it 5 of 5 stars  ·  review of another edition
Recommends it for: every Francophile
An unbelievable biography of a country that hardly knew itself as a country. Written by someone who could not possibly be more in love with his subject, this is an account of the wild human corners of France that were for many years patronized and misunderstood by the denizens of Paris, resisting attempts to map them and incorporate them into the national spirit.

The Kingdom of France was a patchwork of suspicious villages, whose inhabitants rarely spoke the King's language and who moved by medi
A view of the french rural changes covering the periods between the revolution & WWI when the bicycle was the first major change in transportation.
This book offers a brutal view of the rural peasants limited options. It is surprising to realize the state of agriculture and industry in France compared to England. Now I begin to understand how a small island could possibly stand up to Napoleon's vast resources as they did.
The myriad interconnections the peasants had kept them separate from cit
I'd read a lot of rave reviews of this book, so I was keen to read it even though I rarely read non-fiction. So I snapped it up as part of a 3-for-2 offer. It isn't exactly what I'd expected -- the publisher's blurb makes much of Robb cycling 14,000 miles round rural France, enabling him to get a close-up view of landscape and history, but at least as significant is the four years he spent in libraries! This book is a treasure-trove of quirky anecdotes and unexpected aspects of French history. H ...more
Gerald Sinstadt
Graham Robb knows a lot of France as well as knowing a lot about France. His book is a patchwork portrait, part history, part topography, part sociology.

As one who has grown up within a nation that can trace its roots back for centuries, I was immediately struck by the author's account of how slowly France evolved as a single country. Until the relatively recent past, he points out, it was a huge collection of small pays, each with its own narrow boundaries, its own customs, often its own langua
This was great, but it's hard to explain exactly in what way. It's just filled with anecdotes, really, about all the little corners of France, the different provinces and people and languages. It's the kind of thing I would read all over again, just because there's so many interesting little tidbits that I can't remember them all after just one reading. The main thing you get from this is that it's kinda a minor miracle that France exists as a country, since only two hundred years ago two thirds ...more
I picked this book up as airplane reading because the other books I was reading were too heavy (one in subject matter, the other in sheer size). and I ended up finishing it on the trip.

It's a historical geography of France, which is both entertaining in its own right, and interesting from a Nationalist perspective. The idea of an iconic, unified France is very new; a hundred or so years ago most French citizens did not speak French as their first language, and a substantial minority didn't unde
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The Discovery of France 2 22 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...
Parisians: An Adventure History of Paris Rimbaud: A Biography Strangers: Homosexual Love in the Nineteenth Century The Discovery of Middle Earth: Mapping the Lost World of the Celts Victor Hugo: A Biography

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