Friday, November 16, 2012

Reading and Intellectual Engagement

     In the United States, when someone asks me what I study, and I say "eighteenth and nineteenth century French history," I usually expect a disinterested response.  Sometimes, people are puzzled ("Why?"), equally often, they are actively dismissive ("Yuck.").   Here, people are far more interested.  One might think that it's the difference between working on French and American history, but for the fact that, in the United States, the aforementioned "Yuck" often includes a phrase like "I hate history," with no qualifier for the type of history being studied.
   I was reminded of this difference by a conversation with a neighbor yesterday.  She is an older woman, who has raised all of her children and is now widowed and lives alone, though her daughter and grandchildren live in Lyon.  We run into each other from time to time, especially waiting for the bus, and she always makes an effort to have a conversation with me.  Yesterday, our conversation centered on my research interests (which include motherhood and parenting) as well as her perceptions of local contemporary breastfeeding practices and we had quite a nice conversation about her interest in the topic.  She told me about some books she has read about the history of motherhood and parenting, and she really wanted to remember the author of one of the books because she was certain that I would find it of interest.  Right before my stop, she remembered the author that she was trying to recall -- and it was Elisabeth Badinter, a woman whose work is both academic and political, very engaged with the currents of the conversation that we were having.
    This type of conversation, with someone who is interested, well-read, and engaged, seems to me to be more likely in France than in the United States.  Here, I see people on their way to work reading difficult sociological texts and novels -- not 50 Shades of Grey but real, serious novels -- in the hands of a significant number of people on the train or bus.  Intellectual inquiry is taken seriously in a mainstream way that it isn't in the United States.

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