Monday, December 14, 2009

The Discovery of France: a historical geography from the Revolution to the First World War

by Graham Robb

This fascinating gem sat on my shelf for a very long time. Once I started reading, it was a long haul. It's not the sort of nonfiction that keeps one up reading in bed; rather, it's the kind that, while terribly interesting, will make one nod off on the couch. I still recommend highly, but the reader should be prepared and plan accordingly.

While a good hundred of the 450-odd pages are devoted to end notes, indices and such, the remaining 300 pages are dense enough with type and information to make up for it. On the one hand, The Discovery of France is academic in its level of detail and the amount of research it comprises, but it's not textbook-y or dry in its presentation and style. I was sort of reminded, in fact, of Alain de Botton (The Architecture of Happiness), who's so good at making the mundane into the transcendent (or simply revealing that is has been all along) and whose chapters nibble around the edges of his thesis instead of launching a systematic, hierarchical attack. While Robb isn't quite as lyrical as de Botton, he does have a knack for meaningful anecdotes and telling details. His narrative also meanders, eschewing strict chronology in favor of a thematic arrangement, painting a sort of Cubist collage instead of drafting a rigid outline or graph.

Many profundities lurk beneath the surface of this mostly droll-seeming tale of the formation of the nation of France out of so many thousands of regions, dialects and traditions: one can draw inferences about nationalism and colonialism, economic and linguistic hegemony and exploitation, the fragility of identity and the shifting, shimmering thing called "community." But Robb is just telling a story, largely without judgement or prejudice, leaving the debates and politics to others so inclined. The personal is political — by which is meant everything is political — but it's exhausting to be forever strident, righteous and globally aware. Taking time just to enjoy the scenery, to wander and wonder, is cleansing for the soul.

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