The best books for understanding and appreciating the French

Who am I?

I became fascinated with France and the French as a child, and over the past 40 years I have spent as much time as I can here. I’ve been fortunate to be able to combine my dual passions—for France and for literature—in creating a series of classes for CUNY study abroad programs and for the Politics & Prose bookstore. Through this work, over the past 20+ years I have spent much of my time reading and teaching works of literature that explore France and the French people in depth. I now live in France, and I continue to find the French endlessly fascinating. I think I always will. 


I wrote...

Demystifying the French: How to Love Them, and Make Them Love You

By Janet Hulstrand,

Book cover of Demystifying the French: How to Love Them, and Make Them Love You

What is my book about?

I wrote Demystifying the French after many years of watching Americans (and others) stumble their way into unfortunate, unhappy encounters with French people simply by not knowing some fundamental rules of French etiquette—and how important they are to the French. My book is divided into two parts: first, five fairly simple tips designed to help first-time visitors to France (and others who haven’t picked up on some of those rules yet) know how to please French people and pave the way to a pleasant time in France. The second part goes into more depth about why the French are “the way they are” and why—although occasionally their behavior is bewildering or even aggravating to others—"the way they are” is actually quite wonderful!

The books I picked & why

Shepherd is reader supported. We may earn an affiliate commission when you buy through links on our website. This is how we fund this project for readers and authors (learn more).

Paris, Paris: Journey into the City of Light

By David Downie, Alison Harris (photographer),

Book cover of Paris, Paris: Journey into the City of Light

Why this book?

People often ask me what is the best book to take with them to Paris if they can only take one, and this is the book I always recommend. This collection of essays, which can easily fit into a purse or a backpack, is brimming over with fascinating stories about “the people, places, and phenomena” of Paris. Downie’s encyclopedic knowledge of history, and the idiosyncratic curiosity that draws him (and his readers along with him) into a variety of offbeat situations make for fun as well as highly informative reading. It’s a great book to take with you to read in Paris, or sitting at home dreaming of or remembering Paris—and the selection of topics is varied enough that I believe there’s something in it to interest almost anyone

Paris, Paris: Journey into the City of Light

By David Downie, Alison Harris (photographer),

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Paris, Paris as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

“Beautifully written and refreshingly original . . . makes us see [Paris] in a different light.”—San Francisco Chronicle Book Review
 
Swapping his native San Francisco for the City of Light, travel writer David Downie arrived in Paris in 1986 on a one-way ticket, his head full of romantic notions. Curiosity and the legs of a cross-country runner propelled him daily from an unheated, seventh-floor walk-up garret near the Champs-Elysées to the old Montmartre haunts of the doomed painter Modigliani, the tombs of Père-Lachaise cemetery, the luxuriant alleys of the Luxembourg Gardens and the aristocratic Île Saint-Louis midstream in the Seine.…


French Spirits: A House, a Village, and a Love Affair in Burgundy

By Jeffrey Greene,

Book cover of French Spirits: A House, a Village, and a Love Affair in Burgundy

Why this book?

The main reason I love this book is that Jeffrey Greene is a wonderful writer. The story of how he and his wife (and eventually his mother as well) made their home in an ancient, rundown presbytery in a village in Burgundy provides a vivid, real-life picture of life in a French village for a couple of Americans. Greene’s approach allows us to not only see the French as he sees them, but also how they must see him and his wife. His deep respect and affection for his wife, his mother, his neighbors, life in France, and the beauty of nature shine throughout, all rendered in beautiful prose. And the many funny little stories he tells make me laugh out loud every time I reread this book. 

French Spirits: A House, a Village, and a Love Affair in Burgundy

By Jeffrey Greene,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked French Spirits as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

When Jeffrey Greene, a prizewinning American poet, and Mary, his wife-to-be, a molecular biologist at the Pasteur Institute in Paris, discover a moss-covered stone presbytery in a lovely village in the Puisaye region of Burgundy, they know they have to live there. With an unabashed joie de vivre, they begin the arduous process of procuring their slice of paradise amid the wild beauty of the French countryside -- a place of gentle farmlands and dense forests, of rivers and lakes, of stunning fields bursting with the color and heady scent of wildflowers.

French Spirits is the magical tale of their…


I'll Never Be French (no matter what I do)

By Mark Greenside,

Book cover of I'll Never Be French (no matter what I do)

Why this book?

This book is a wonderful romp through the adventures and misadventures of a hapless American who speaks very little French (he describes himself as “functionally illiterate”) yet manages to charm his way into a very happy part-time life in a little village in Brittany. Greenside’s self-deprecating sense of humor as he recounts the many awkward situations he finds himself in as he settles into life in France and deals with a variety of everyday challenges is often laugh-out-loud funny. I also recommend the sequel to this book, (not quite) Mastering the Art of French Living, but you should definitely start with this one: the author’s unanticipated, unpredictable, joyful journey into a life in France, told from the very beginning, is too good to miss

I'll Never Be French (no matter what I do)

By Mark Greenside,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked I'll Never Be French (no matter what I do) as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

In a story that stands above the throngs of travel memoirs, full of gorgeous descriptions of Brittany and at times hysterical encounters with the locals, Mark Greenside describes his initially reluctant travels in this "heartwarming story" (San Francisco Chronicle) where he discovers a second life.

When Mark Greenside-a native New Yorker living in California, political lefty, writer, and lifelong skeptic-is dragged by his girlfriend to a tiny Celtic village in Brittany at the westernmost edge of France in Finistere, or what he describes as "the end of the world," his life begins to change.

In a playful, headlong style, and…


Joie de Vivre: Secrets of Wining, Dining, and Romancing Like the French

By Harriet Welty Rochefort,

Book cover of Joie de Vivre: Secrets of Wining, Dining, and Romancing Like the French

Why this book?

Harriet Welty Rochefort was born and raised in small-town Iowa but she made her way to Paris right after graduating from college. Married to a Frenchman for more than 50 years, she is deeply integrated into French family life. This book offers, therefore, the dual perspective of an outsider who is now also an insider. Her interviews with experts ranging from patissiers and sommeliers to coiffeurs and sellers of lingerie and perfume provide a rich in-depth exploration of the details of daily French life. I love the sidebar conversations she has with her husband, who provides his invaluable perspective on how the French think; the many handy bits of practical advice she has gathered from her mother-in-law over the years; and her unabashed and enduring appreciation of her American roots. 

Joie de Vivre: Secrets of Wining, Dining, and Romancing Like the French

By Harriet Welty Rochefort,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Joie de Vivre as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

The French truly are singular in the way they live, act, and think - from the lightness of their pastries to the decadence of their Hermes scarves. They simply exude a certain je ne sais quoi that is a veritable art form. In "Joie de Vivre", Harriet Welty Rochefort, an American who married a Frenchman and has lived in Paris for more than thirty years, explores the secrets of the French - from romance and style to acting and flirting like a Parisienne to wining and dining a la francaise. With tips and tricks like how to diet like a…


Culture Shock! France: A Survival Guide to Customs and Etiquette

By Sally Adamson Taylor,

Book cover of Culture Shock! France: A Survival Guide to Customs and Etiquette

Why this book?

This is one of the best books I know for covering a huge amount of material in a compact, reader-friendly, yet very thorough form. The author provides insightful perspective on French history, psychology, culture, cuisine, language, and habits, and offers particularly helpful advice about how to recover from the inevitable moments of cultural awkwardness. Although some of the practical information is outdated, the general insights into and analysis of French people and their culture will never go out of date. I think it’s well worth reading for anyone who has an interest in France and the French that goes beyond the surface; anyone who has a genuine interest in understanding this fascinating people and culture. 

Culture Shock! France: A Survival Guide to Customs and Etiquette

By Sally Adamson Taylor,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Culture Shock! France as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

CultureShock! France peels away the layers of the French and their country to reveal the heart of the Gallic temperament. The book navigates through essential topics such as learning the French language, how best to work with the French, observing their body language and even how to choose wine in a restaurant. Glean practical advice on finding a home, getting the utilities running and putting the children into school. Find out more about the French, a complex people who maintain a cool composure on the outside yet are inwardly passionate about art, romance, cuisine and wine. Discover how easily the…


5 book lists we think you will like!

Interested in France, Paris, and French people?

7,000+ authors have recommended their favorite books and what they love about them. Browse their picks for the best books about France, Paris, and French people.

France Explore 681 books about France
Paris Explore 251 books about Paris
French People Explore 10 books about French people

And, 3 books we think you will enjoy!

We think you will like The New Paris, Parisians, and La Dame d'Esprit if you like this list.