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The Discovery of France [May. 1st, 2010|05:09 pm]

This book is crammed with stories that quickly convinced me that I didn't know nearly as much as I thought I did about France, and the history of the country. But like a candle in a dark room, I realized as I was reading that there was a lot of detail that I still couldn't see.
The book's primary focus is on explaining and describing, both generally and in intimate detail, the rural backcountry of France as it existed and changed from the 17th century(or so) up until the First World War. This description is both physical/topographical, as well as social/ethnic/linguistic. Many of the details are great, the facts are often surprising, and the stories are sometimes heartrending. Even when he's painting with a broad brush, the picture of rural France that he paints is sensible and realistic.
But the problem is that this feels like a companion volume. The author is apparently an expert on historic France, and it seems like he's assuming a vast base of knowledge that I just don't have. Sure, I know the events, especially around the revolution, but I don't know enough about the evolution of French institutions to make sense of what is driving change in the countryside.
I also don't understand the interaction between the government, especially pre-Revolution, and the locality. That must have been some, but it's not explained, other than a few off hand references to the crushing burden of taxes. Part of this is probably my modern perspective: the idea of a government that doesn't really have an idea of what it rules is shocking.
Furthermore, the focus on the rural population, no matter that it was demographically several times the size of urban one, ends up being slightly detrimental. There is no explanation of cultural change in towns, and cultural exchange between town and country doesn't get enough attention. If this were the only thing I'd read, I'd be left with the sense that civic life in France was extremely generic, everything whitewashed into conformity with a national culture standardized from Paris. While that is possible, that doesn't seem likely given the richly varied social landscape beyond the walls.
Another thing is that the author initially mentions that the bicycle is going to be an important part of the book, mentioning that he has discovered a great deal of France this way. However, while bikes do come up towards the end, they're not actually featured as an important change in the text, which isn't the best setup but at least spared me any of the author's personal bicycle anecdotes.
The conclusion is also unsatisfying, mostly a short discussion of the 2005 ethnic riots, and comparing the immigrants of this era to those of several previous ones.
Overall, I'm still glad I read it, I just it were either half or twice as long as it is.
{Edit: 2011 retrospective}
The more distance I get, and the more other things I read, the better this book looks. It was emotionally compelling, factually informative, and provided a great window into a life in pre-modern France. If someone else is reading through this, let me be clear: buy this book.