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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

4.02  ·  Rating details ·  1,774 ratings  ·  248 reviews
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-Christian beliefs. French itself was a minority language.Graham Robb describes that unknown world in arresting narrative detail. He re ...more
Hardcover, 454 pages
Published October 17th 2007 by W. W. Norton Company
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4.02  · 
Rating details
 ·  1,774 ratings  ·  248 reviews

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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
Jul 16, 2012 rated it it was amazing
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
Paula Koneazny
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 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:
Sep 03, 2017 rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: france, paris, modernity
Graham Robb brings a wonderful tour d'horizon of France between 1750 and 1914. Not the France that we usually know with its Sun Kings, enlightened Philosophers and Corsican emperors, but quite the contrary of it: the closed village communities, with their incomprehensible dialects, their superstition and their distrust of all what was strange, and with their precarious survival economy. Robb stresses that France in this period was no unit, French was spoken in a limited area and by a limited gro ...more
Elizabeth Theiss
Feb 25, 2013 rated it it was amazing
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 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
Jul 27, 2013 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: france, history
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
Mar 31, 2019 rated it really liked it
Shelves: 2019
Winner of the 2008 Royal Society Ondaatje Prize, an Award given annually to the written work that best evokes the spirit of place. I went from knowing absolutely nothing about the French countryside and history to feeling like I had taken a trip on foot through time in French small towns!
Rick Skwiot
Nov 21, 2012 rated it it was amazing
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
Nov 18, 2018 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: history
This is a fascinating and thoroughly enjoyable book. We have come to see nation states as monolithic entities, unified by language, culture, and history. Regional variations exist, but appear just as local color. The process of unification was in fact much messier, and bringing order out of chaos, sometimes by economic manipulation, sometimes by force, was a long and fraught process. In the United States we see the strong regional accents fading, and everyone seems to use a kind of homogenized M ...more
Sense of  History
It is clear to me that Robbs with this book wanted to offer a correction on the image that the French put up of themselves as a nation that already in the 18th century laid the foundations of modernity, that during and after the French revolution this modernity penetrated in all sections of French society, and at the same time France spread this light of modernity across the world. This myth has been punctured long ago, not least by French historians themselves, both by the Annales-school as by ...more
The Sporty  Bookworm
D'habitude quand vous lisez une histoire de France du XIXème siècle, vous avez droit à un cours sur l'alternance politique entre Empire et restauration puis république et de nouveau une dictature pour finir avec la Commune et la Seconde République. On vous parle de grands hommes, de l'émergence des nationalismes ainsi que d'industrialisation, de colonies et d'avancées technologiques.

Dans cette histoire de France, on sort des sentiers battus. On arpente les petits villages où l'on ne parlait pas
Dec 06, 2007 rated it liked it
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
Carrie Chappell
May 26, 2015 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
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
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
Dec 02, 2012 rated it liked it
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 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.
Henry Sturcke
Jul 25, 2018 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
My takeaway from this book is that there is more to France than Paris. As true as that is today, it was even more the case in earlier times, when in vast regions people spoke in Basque, Breton, Catalan, Alsatian, Flemish, and other non-French languages and had no concept of living in a country called France. The land was a quilt of a thousand or more pays.
Graham Robb chronicles this neither with a sense of nostalgia nor of being a collector of the quaint. Before writing this book, he was already
Ian Mapp
Jan 31, 2018 rated it liked it
An uncategorizable book really and not what I was expecting.

I was hoping for a beginniners guide to the geography, people and psyche of France. The blurb on the front seemed to indicate that this is a travelogue by the author, making his slow progress around France on a bike. I incorrectly guessed it would be a bit Bill Bryson.

Its much more than that and based more by years in the Library than first hand observations.

You can tell how serious the book is, more than a 1/3 is dedicated to footnotes
Jul 10, 2017 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Lots of great stuff here--from language to maps to railroads and more, the book tells the story of the various populations "discovering" that they are French, as well as later tourists discovering the France of reality and invention. I loved it!
Apr 05, 2017 rated it really liked it
Shelves: history, non-fiction
I really enjoyed this book. Honestly at times it was truly boring as hell, but Robb still managed to pull me through with enjoyment the entire way. That's kind of how it felt. Like enjoyably being drug through the mud for a long time. I guess that means the writing was good!

Really though, a lot of fun with a lot of great information. Helped that I read it while tramping around France, Give it a go though. I enjoyed it much more than other French historicals.
Sonja Tyson
Feb 21, 2019 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: history
What a wonderful book! I learned soooo much about France. I knew a good deal about the revolution and Napoleon, but that was about it. Now I'm much more interested in learning more.
Karen E.
Mar 05, 2019 rated it it was ok
Some good anecdotes, but an example of bad history.
Ben Dutton
Feb 06, 2012 rated it it was amazing
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
Apr 19, 2010 rated it it was amazing
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
Mary Catelli
Apr 30, 2014 rated it really liked it
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
Kate Stedman
Jun 07, 2012 rated it it was amazing
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
Henri Tournyol du Clos
This is to French history very much like what British tabloids are to journalism: implicit or explicit generalizations from a collection of out of context senstionalist anecdotes, with a nearly total disregard for established facts and statistics.

The main thrust of this book is that the French are not French but a collection of isolated tiny tribes (the word "tribe" itself is repeated over and over again, occurring a good thirty times in the text) of violent, illiterate and dirty peasants, nearl
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The Discovery of France 2 26 Sep 11, 2014 10:08PM  
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  • Paris: After the Liberation 1944-1949
  • And the Show Went On: Cultural Life in Nazi-Occupied Paris
  • How Paris Became Paris: The Invention of the Modern City
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
“above all, simplify the French language and abolish irregular verbs – a measure that would have rescued countless schoolchildren from the despotism of pernickety pedagogues.” 0 likes
“The paysans had no flags or written histories, but they expressed their local patriotism in much the same way as nations: by denigrating their neighbours and celebrating their own nobility.” 0 likes
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