Criticism & Features

NBCC Reads

Guest Post: Jonah Raskin on What the French Are Reading

By Jane Ciabattari

NBCC member Jonah Raskin, in Paris to do readings and radio interview for his new book, Field Days, sends this dispatch on what the French are reading this summer.

Whenever I visit France I go to bookstores. This summer is no different. I’ve been to bookstore events, talked to editors, publishers, and readers—before the whole country goes on vacation.

They pack their bags with bikinis, sunblock, and of course books. If the French didn’t read in the summer if wouldn’t be France. This summer the French are reading bestsellers that provide an escape from reality and that also look closely at the realities of French history and French heroes. At a time of uncertainties about France’s future, readers are turning to both fiction and non-fiction for a sense of continuity, pride, and pleasure. For those who appreciate firm dates and real events the editors of Le Monde have assembled a massive tome with news stories from 1944 to 2009; no major event is missing. For readers who enjoy the mix of fact and fiction there’s Pierre Michon’s The Eleven, a dazzling new novel set during the French Revolution that provides a meditation on the nature of history itself. Reviewers have acclaimed it a genuine work of literature; readers have made it a commercial success without a big advertising budget.

Readers are also turning to bestselling confessional memoirs by Laurent Fignon, France’s famed cyclist, and Claude Lanzmann, the French filmmaker and long-time friend of Sartre and De Beauvoir. Both offer a strong sense of French identity, and are comforting.

The French are also venturing beyond their own literary borders and reading books in translation. Stieg Larsson’s The Millenium, which has been a global hit after its initial Swedish publication, is also popular with readers in France who want an escape into the pages of murder, sex, and mystery as they go off to the mountains and the sea this July and August.