Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Books I'm Reading: The Discovery of France

I've just finished reading The Discovery of France: A Historical Geography, by Graham Robb (paperback edition, Norton, 2007). Having put the book down, my strongest impulse was to pick it up and start reading all over again. The Discovery of France is packed with surprising and enlightening information--too much to take in all at once.

If you think you know France, this is likely to be a revelation--on many levels. As Robb notes in his short introductory essay headed "Itinerary," the book grew out of his observations of France from the perspective of a bicycle seat: "This book is the result of fourteen thousand miles in the saddle and four years in the library" he says.

There is the knowledge of a foreign country one can gain from superficial contact and the knowledge gained by living intimately among a country's people and speaking their language. Despite Robb's deep knowledge of the land we call France today (his "superficial" knowledge of the country was already far deeper than most non-French people could ever hope to gain; Robb has written books about Victor Hugo, Balzac, and Rimbaud, among other topics), traveling the country at the pace of a bicycle revealed to him a different France from the one he thought he knew. In deliciously readable prose, Robb passes on his insights in vivid detail, giving us a view into what seems another world--France before it came to be what we think of as France. Suddenly the country seems a less civilized, less homogenous, far more colorful place.

I lived in Japan for nearly twenty years, my first year as the only Caucasian in a small town in Shikoku, the smallest of Japan's four main islands. In that year I went from being a 17-year-old monolingual high school student to being a moderately fluent speaker of Japanese, a huge advantage in getting to know a place. Even from so brief a stay as my year as an exchange student, it became clear that living somewhere and speaking its language was a very different thing from traveling there (I had traveled in Canada, the Caribbean, in Germany, Holland, Belgium, and Denmark). At the end of my year, I thought I knew a thing or two about Japan. Yet, when a few years later I moved more or less permanently to Japan, I lived in the Tokyo area. It was startling to apprehend quite suddenly that the Japan I knew was just a snapshot of one very small part of rural Japan. Tokyo was another Japan altogether. The contrast between those two views of Japan was disorienting but revelatory. Robb's writing evokes very much the same sense of knowing and not knowing that I remember from my early years in Japan. Sometimes it happens that we know the people in our lives in this same way, seeming to know them intimately, yet knowing nothing about them at the same time.

Reading The Discovery of France has left me feeling ignorant, humble, and yearning for more. While I would never have called myself intimately acquainted with France, I have traveled there on five or six occasions and I spent two and a half months living in the south of the country this past summer; I have more than a passing acquaintance with the place. Still, virtually every page of this book seemed heavy with unfamiliar treasure. The Discovery of France is nothing less than a survey of how France's idea of France has changed from before France was even a meaningful concept. I particularly enjoyed the sections on travel and how modes of travel (especially the speed of various forms of travel) altered perceptions. I was reminded of similar discussions of how the arrival of the train in the United States affected world views there in Rebecca Solnit's excellent book River of Shadows: Eadweard Muybridge and the Technological Wild West (paperback edition, Penguin, 2003). The Discovery of France was thoroughly enjoyable. Highly recommended.

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