There are countless books in English about France, Paris, and the French. I certainly haven’t read them all, but I’ve read quite a few of them. Here are some favorites.
Cultural misunderstandings: the French-American experience, by Raymonde Carroll. This is the definitive book on differences between French and American culture, by a French anthropologist married to an American. Any book that you’ll read about France and the French will cite this book, and there’s a reason: it’s an excellent book. If you’re French, you’ll find this book equally useful for getting some insight into Americans, and it’s available in French, too, under the title Evidences invisibles: Américains et Français au quotidien.
Sixty million Frenchmen can’t be wrong: what makes the French so French?, by Jean-Benoît Nadeau and Julie Barlow. Despite the silly title, this is the definitive book on how France works, for foreigners. Want to understand the grandes écoles system, what an énarque is, what all those strikes and protests are about, and why one might dismantle a McDonald’s? This is the book for you. It’s been published in French, as well.
Paris to the moon, by Adam Gopnik. For my money, this is the definitive book on the expat experience in Paris. Adam Gopnik is a long-time writer for The New Yorker, one of the best American magazines. New Yorker authors are known for writing absorbing, smart tales, and Adam Gopnik is one of the best.
French lessons: a memoir, by Alice Kaplan. On some level, this book is less about France or the French than it is about the challenge of living with contradictions. The writer is a Jew and the daughter of one of the prosecutors at the Nuremberg war crime trials. She is also a scholar of French literature specializing in Louis-Ferdinand Céline, a incredible French author who revolutionized French literature–and a Nazi collaborator whose anti-Semitic writings were so over the top that even the fucking Nazis thought he went too far. The book is an excellent evocation of what it’s like to love a language–not “love” in the sense of French is so cool, I love saying “serrurerie,” but “love” in the sense of I want to swim in this language, I want to wrap myself in it, not being able to speak French makes me feel like I’m a little kid and my parents are dead. In thinking about this book, I keep coming back to ideas of paradox and contradiction. How do you reconcile your love for someone with the fact that they’re an absolute, total asshole? Céline becomes a specific example in Kaplan’s life for a general problem that I imagine we all face.
A traveller’s history of Paris, by Robert Cole. This is basically a history of France, but through the lens of how everything in the country’s history has affected Paris. They say that when Paris sneezes, France catches a cold, but it works in both directions. The book strikes a very skilled balance between giving lots of historical detail and not bogging the reader down in arcana. This is one of the few books that I actually carry back and forth between France and the US–it’s a really pleasant reference.
The flâneur: a stroll through the paradoxes of Paris, by Edmund White. A delightful book about the Paris of the marginal–blacks, Jews, Arabs, poets. It’s beautifully written–the kind of book that you know you’re going to read again as soon as you finish it.
Stations de métro: d’Abbesses à Wagram, by Gérard Roland. One of the mysteries of Paris is this. In New York, the only American city with a real subway system, the stations have this sort of name: 14th St. 23rd St. 149th St. In Paris, the stations have names like this: Bir-Hakeim. Château d’Eau. Chemin Vert. Colonel Fabien. What are the stories behind the names? This book explains them all. Note: unlike the other books that I’ve talked about, this one is in French.
If you have suggestions for other books about France, Paris, and the French, I’d love to hear about them.