In an age when France has consolidated its position as the leading European destination for Englishspeaking holiday-makers, tourists and second-home-owners, retained its prestige as the international capital of gastronomy, wine production, chic and sex appeal, and bred film directors to rival Hollywood and singer-songwriters without equal on the world stage, it has also become an object of profound suspicion for many non-French commentators on the intellectual life. French ideas are produced in a faddish and fashion-conscious climate, we are often told, prominent philosophers and social theorists are treated with absurd veneration and their obscure, portentous, jargon-infested diction threatens to run riot through the human sciences, undermining otherwise secure British and North American bastions of clarity, good sense and methodological rectitude. It could of course be that the prevailing enthusiasm for France as a source of pleasure is closely linked to this distrust of French ideas: while volupté and jouissance belong quite properly in the restaurant, the bedroom or the cinema, they have no place in the library or the lecture theatre. Could it be that French intellectuals enjoy themselves too much and too openly in the eyes of their Anglophone detractors, and that their writings are therefore easily seen by such critics as an attempt to seduce and corrupt our impressionable young? In order to begin answering questions of this kind we clearly need a new kind of reference work-one which talks about wine and psychoanalysis, movie-makers and maîtres-à-penser, Piaf and Piaget.
The entire field of contemporary French culture is alive with myths and counter-myths about France and Frenchness. While some of these are produced at home and then exported, others originate abroad-in British tabloid newspapers, say, or on North American campuses-and are then imported into France. So much that is fascinating about contemporary France is transmitted by gossip, hearsay and the insider talk of various professional groups that it has until now been difficult for the would-be demythologizer to lay down a firm factual foundation for his or her enquiry. Things are even more problematic for the newcomer. Basic documents are often surprisingly difficult to find, and divisions between 'high' and 'popular' culture, or between the hexagon and the wider world of francophonie, have often meant that students and general readers have had to visit far-flung sections of their local reference library in order to begin assembling a comprehensive picture of France today. What Keith Reader, Alex Hughes and their team of contributors have produced in this splendid new Encyclopedia is a huge multi-dimensional snapshot of a culture that has reinvented itself with dizzying rapidity in the last half-century and shows no sign of slowing down. The range of their book is astonishing. With a single movement, the reader is able to travel from the world of screen goddesses (Aimée, Bardot, Deneuve) to the world of jet-setting intellectual demiurges (Baudrillard, Bourdieu, Derrida), from Elle to Eluard, from nuclear power to pornography, from agriculture to athletics, from the structure of Pierre Reverdy's verse to the labyrinthine and recursive structures of the new European legislation. All those who study modern French and Francophone cultures will be in debt to Hughes and Reader. Dangerous and delectable France has been mapped as never before between the covers of this cornucopian volume.