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The Forbidden Best-Sellers of Pre-Revolutionary France Hardcover – March 1, 1995


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Editorial Reviews

Amazon.com Review

More popular than the canon of the great Enlightenment philosophers were other books, also banned by the regime, written and sold "under the cloak." These formed a libertine literature that was a crucial part of the culture of dissent in the Old Regime. Robert Darnton explores the cultural and political significance of these "bad" books and introduces readers to three of the most influential illegal best-sellers, from which he includes substantial excerpts. Winner of the 1995 National Book Critics Circle Award for criticism. --This text refers to the Paperback edition.

From Publishers Weekly

More specialized than The Great Cat Massacre, Darnton's latest still cogently demonstrates through tables, case studies, analysis and anecdotes just how different the pre-Revolutionary French were from postmodern Americans. In this second volume of a trilogy that began with The Business of Enlightenment, Darnton returns to the extensive publishing records of the Societe typographique de Neuchatel (STN) to trace the demand for books forbidden as a threat to morals and politics. These "philosophical books," as they were called, included Rousseau's Social Contract. But with only one order in STN's records, it was hardly a bestseller. Accordingly, Darnton focuses on three widely disseminated books representing different popular genres: the pornographic Therese philosophe (probably by Marquis d'Argens); the philosophical utopian fantasy L'An 2440 by Louis-Sebastien Mercier; and the libelle (think libelous) Anecdotes sur Mme la comtesse du Barry ascribed to Mathieu-Francois Pidansat de Mairobert. His discussion of the distribution, reception and influence of these books is convincing and careful (general readers may find some sections on methodology a little too careful). Darnton sees these works as literature, not just sociological artifacts; and, if lengthy excerpts from L'An 2440 seem a little dated, those from Therese and Anecdotes are still ribaldly amusing.
Copyright 1995 Reed Business Information, Inc.
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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 440 pages
  • Publisher: W W Norton & Co Inc; First Edition edition (March 1995)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0393037207
  • ISBN-13: 978-0393037203
  • Product Dimensions: 6.3 x 0.6 x 9.5 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.8 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 4.5 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (11 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #1,218,206 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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A good read on a misunderstood era.
L. A. Lalande
Darnton provides us with a scholarly study of the underground book trade in the years leading up to the Revolution.
H. F. Gibbard
It certainly made me interested in seeking out the full-length books that are excerpted!
Anyechka

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

24 of 26 people found the following review helpful By A Customer on November 20, 2000
Format: Paperback
The study of literary and intellectual history often has tended to identify a canon, or core of classics, for each historical period and then study the broader corpus of works in relation to those classics. In accordance with this model, there also has been a tendency to identify such canonical works as the "cause" of historical events. Eighteenth century French history has not been an exception, many historians arguing, rightly or wrongly, that the Enlightenment writings of Voltaire, Montesquieu, Diderot, and Rousseau provided the ideological basis for the French Revolution.
There are, of course, many problems with this approach. Among those problems, Robert Darnton suggests in his fascinating and carefully researched "The Forbidden Best-Sellers of Pre-Revolutionary France", is that, "if we put the issue that way, we are likely to distort it, first by reifying the Enlightenment as if it could be separated from everything else in eighteenth-century culture; then by injecting into it an analysis of the Revolution, as if it could be traced through the events of 1789-1800 like a substance being monitored in the bloodstream."
Moreover, as Darnton's book argues, any approach which focusses exclusively on the canonical literature of the Enlightenment necessarily misses the mark since there was a flourishing popular and illegal underground literature, the so-called "livres philosophiques" or "philosophical books", which exerted a powerful impact on eighteenth century French culture and politics. These were the books sold "under the cloak", illegal books forbidden by the French Monarchy because they undermined the authority of the king, the Church, or conventional morality. "By sampling them, the reader will be able to form his or her own impressions of the world of illegal literature.
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11 of 11 people found the following review helpful By Anyechka on March 10, 2007
Format: Paperback
This was one of the many great books I read in the History of the Enlightenment class I took my senior year of college. My professor told us that Robert Darnton is his main rival in that field, which meant that he's a really good writer who really knows his stuff, does all of the thorough research, and is really familiar with so many facets of the Enlightenment. Though some of the chapters can be a bit academic at times, it never really merges into boring-academic style. He still manages to be interesting while dealing with some rather academic material, such as marketing, ordering, shipping, and which books were selling best with which booksellers. Although most of us did feel that Mr. Darnton used too many untranslated French words, phrases, and titles, like kind of showing off or being pretentious. (This is no longer the era when most people could speak and read French as a second language!)

Mr. Darnton breaks down these forbidden best-sellers into the three main categories of political slander, philosophical pornography, and utopian fantasy. Too often we view history through the lens of the ruling-classes or the well-off, not the common masses who were not privileged enough to experience the same things that the rich and the bourgeoisie did. The hoi polloi of pre-revolutionary France were not reading authors such as Voltaire, Montesquieu, Rousseau, Diderot, and d'Holbach. They were reading authors such as Louis-Sébastien Mercier, Mathieu-François Pidansat de Mairobert, François de Baculard d'Arnaud, Pietro Bacci Aretino, and Jean Baptiste de Boyer d'Argens. The common people would have no connection to nor use for such high-minded things as philosophy, history, science, and theology.
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16 of 18 people found the following review helpful By H. F. Gibbard on May 31, 2001
Format: Paperback
The French Revolution was a revolution of ideas. But where did those ideas come from? The traditional answer has focused on high-minded Enlightenment sources, like the works of Voltaire and Rousseau. But, as Robert Darnton proves in this book, for every Rousseau, there were a score of "Rousseaus de la ruisseau" --"gutter Rousseaus" who attacked the Ancien Regieme with scandalous polemics, scurrillous pamphlets and political and pornographic fantasies. That most of this literature was forbidden by law only made it more attractive to the public.
Darnton provides us with a scholarly study of the underground book trade in the years leading up to the Revolution. He explores every aspect of the business, and manages to make what could have been an abstruse topic fascinating to the reader. Most of the authors he mentions have been completely forgotten except by scholars, but they were highly influential and controversial in their time.
The last part of the book is a fascinating series of excerpts from the books discussed in the text. The pornographic excerpts are the most interesting: to me, they demonstrate that the writing style of the Marquis de Sade, with its philosophical rantings and outrageous obscenity, was far from unique and must be placed in the context of other, less famous writers of the same ilk.
I highly recommend this book to people interested in the ideas that sparked the French Revolution, and to those interested in issues surrounding freedom of the press.
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