The best books for understanding the French

The Books I Picked & Why

French or Foe?: Getting the Most Out of Visiting, Living and Working in France

By Polly Platt

French or Foe?: Getting the Most Out of Visiting, Living and Working in France

Why this book?

Polly Platt was the first author to write about the frustrating features of French in a way that would help foreigners deal with them. In this classic, first published in 1994, she delves into their intense relationship to food, explains how to handle rudeness in stores, how to deal with the French bureaucracy, how their idea of time can drive foreigners crazy and much more. Platt’s observations were eye-opening for me when I first moved to France and are still relevant 25 years later. 


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Paris to the Moon

By Adam Gopnick

Paris to the Moon

Why this book?

New Yorker Adam Gopnick’s memoir about life in Paris with his family is a great reminder of why we all became so enchanted with France, and the French, in the first place. The experiences are relatable, but the insights erudite enough to make you feel smart, and want to dig deeper. It’s a dreamy, vicarious immersion in the life of a sophisticated expatriate who grapples with all the quirks and paradoxes of the French capital and its inhabitants.


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Bringing Up Bébé: One American Mother Discovers the Wisdom of French Parenting (Now with Bébé Day by Day: 100 Keys to French Parenting)

By Pamela Druckerman

Bringing Up Bébé: One American Mother Discovers the Wisdom of French Parenting (Now with Bébé Day by Day: 100 Keys to French Parenting)

Why this book?

New York Times columnist Pamela Druckerman had a brilliant flash when she decided to zoom in on this particularly puzzling aspect of French civilization: how they raise their kids. Her book is entertaining, witty, and instructive enough that even readers without kids will enjoy, and learn from it. French parenting has its dark side (it’s authoritarian around the edges), and its inspiring side (French kids learn to speak properly to adults and they eat what they’re served). But most of all, as Druckerman shows, childhood and child-rearing explain so many puzzling features of French society.


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The Discovery of France

By Graham Robb

The Discovery of France

Why this book?

Don’t be intimated by the academic-sounding title. This book just blew my mind. If you want to even begin understanding the French, you have to know where they came from. As Robb proves in this readable work, there is no better way to do this than by looking at French geography. France is a country that evolved out of surprisingly varied landscapes, ethnic origins, languages, and more. Understanding all the pieces of the puzzle, the great struggles that gathered them into a unified country, will forever change how you see the country.


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Flirting with French: How a Language Charmed Me, Seduced Me, and Nearly Broke My Heart

By William Alexander

Flirting with French: How a Language Charmed Me, Seduced Me, and Nearly Broke My Heart

Why this book?

Alexander’s book is a sort of memoir that recounts how, at a quite advanced age, he set out to become fluent in French. It’s funny, insightful, peppered with great observations, and has quite an amazing twist in the plot. His determination to master French – but also the research he explores about language learning in the process – will be inspiring for readers of all ages. A fun and motivating read.


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