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The Allure of the Archives (The Lewis Walpole Series in Eighteenth-Century Culture and History) Hardcover – September 24, 2013

4.4 out of 5 stars 8 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews

Review

"This is a book to be cherished, to be handed on from generation to generation, preserving as it does the thrill of each new reader’s encounter with the fragmentary written remains of the past. Arlette Farge captures with extraordinary vividness the ‘obscure beauty’ of archival records, and the passion and exhilaration that handling centuries-old documents can stimulate."—Lisa Jardine, University College London
(Lisa Jardine)

"The Allure of the Archives, available at long last in a marvellous English translation, is a profound and moving work about archives, about history and the law, and about women in history."—Emma Rothschild, author of The Inner Life of Empires: An Eighteenth-Century History
(Emma Rothschild)

"In The Allure of the Archives, one of France's leading historians offers the reader a stunning phenomenology of archival practice. Arlette Farge combines an unparalleled account of the immediacy and excess of the archive with a profound meditation on converting archival research into historical narrative and argumentation. This book is essential reading for anyone seriously interested in the production of historical knowledge. Its translation is long overdue."—Kunal Parker, University of Miami School of Law
(Kunal Parker)

"This reflexive, gendered ethnography of the historian’s craft – already a French classic – delicately explores what the author calls the organized topography that lies beneath the archives. Every student of history should read this book."—Richard Price, author of First-Time, Alabi’s World, and Travels with Tooy
(Richard Price)

"Deciphering nearly illegible texts, recopying them endlessly, passing from document to document, each day burrowing deeper into the archives in order to retrieve the words of the past: these are the historian's tasks that Arlette Farge brings to life with a touch that is both tangible and subtle. Her book illuminates the strange task that is the historian's, whose aim is to enter the past, find the long lost and the long dead, and listen to their reasons, their misfortunes, their words."—Roger Chartier, Collège de France
(Roger Chartier)

"The Allure of the Archives is the ars poetica of a particularly gifted and eloquent historian. The reading room may be brutally unheated and the volumes unwieldy, the occasions of transcription quite flatly hostile or indifferent to the voices we most wish to hear, but the archive’s pull is all the more profound: its holdings bear witness that the world is larger than our preconceptions."—Linda Gregerson, University of Michigan
(Linda Gregerson)

“A captivating introduction to the pleasures of the archive.  The allure, le goût de l’archive: Scott-Railton’s translation captures the full flavor of Farge’s remarkable prose.”—Kathryn Burns, University of North Carolina
(Kathryn Burns)

"[Farge's] description of a personal, physical relationship to archives resonates more than ever as the essence of curiosity, an existentially fulfilling act in which the historian can literally touch the past."—Jacob Soll, Chronicle Review
(Jacob Soll Chronicle Review)

"A little gem of a book. A diamond, perhaps, given both its clarity and the finesse with which it’s been cut and set. It is an unmistakable classic: one of the great memoirs of the silent, day-to-day drama of research . . . Adamantine: sharp, brilliant, perfect, and created to last."—Scott McLemee, Inside Higher Ed
(Scott McLemee Inside Higher Ed)

"Lyrical, suspenseful and humorous in turn. Farge has created a fascinating account of how historians work that will appeal to scholars and history buffs alike . . . [This] classic intellectual memoir, finally translated into English, elegantly re-creates the thrills and (literal) chills of a historian's archival treasure hunts."—Shelf Awareness, Starred Review (Shelf Awareness)

"In this elegant and captivating (and admirably translated) account . . . we gain an appreciation of historical research as a calling, an obsession, and an insight into how our ideas about the past might be shaped."—Los Angeles Review of Books (Los Angeles Review of Books)

Received second place for the 2014 translation prize in non-fiction given by the French-American Foundation and the Florence Gould Foundation.
(Translation Prize French-American Foundation 2014-05-23)

‘Farge’s work is an eloquent testimony  to the materiality of the archive and its power to astonish and delight’ —Arnold Hunt, TLS (Arnold Hunt TLS 2014-07-25)

“A unique, lyrical  paean to historical research, . . . now superbly translated into English. . . . The kick of research—not self-evident, by any means—is the subject of Farge’s marvelous book. Behind it lies the goal of history, which is ‘the understanding of a time and a world.’ . . . [But] The Allure of the Archives is more than a reflection, however evocative, on the seductive joys and travails of research; it is a methodological handbook, . . . [containing] several chapters with subheadings that read like guidelines for the would-be historian.”—Brenda Wineapple, The Threepenny Review
(Brenda Wineapple The Threepenny Review)

About the Author

Arlette Farge is Director of Research in Modern History at the Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique in Paris. Natalie Zemon Davis is Professor of History at the University of Toronto. Thomas Scott-Railton is the translator of several books, including works by Étienne Balibar, Michel Foucault, and Slavoj Žižek.
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Product Details

  • Series: The Lewis Walpole Series in Eighteenth-Century Culture and History
  • Hardcover: 152 pages
  • Publisher: Yale University Press; First Edition (US) First Printing edition (September 24, 2013)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0300176732
  • ISBN-13: 978-0300176735
  • Product Dimensions: 8 x 5.2 x 0.9 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 8.5 ounces
  • Average Customer Review: 4.4 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (8 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #739,828 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

By Rebecca J. Scott on October 2, 2013
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
In 1989 the French historian Arlette Farge published an elegantly-written small book on judicial archives and the ways in which historians can engage the documents those archives contain. The book was titled _Le Goût de l'archive_ , a play on words implying both the taste of & a taste for the archive. Insightful, witty, and erudite, the work became a classic among readers in France, and was translated into Spanish and into Portuguese. Farge vividly evokes the vision of life in ancien régime Paris that emerges from police records and the archives of the Bastille, while warning of the traps that archives have laid for us, the illusions of immediacy that can lead us astray. In short, astringent chapters she reflects on the difficulty of confronting "Traces by the Thousands," and the lure of finding "Captured Speech."

For years no publisher took on the task of translating Farge's (nearly poetic) prose into English. So aficionados of the book who wanted to teach it had to try to coax students into reading it in the original French, or attempt to convey Farge's brilliance in paraphrase. But this September the book appeared from Yale University Press, under the title THE ALLURE OF THE ARCHIVES, translated by Thomas Scott-Railton, with a forward by the distinguished historian Natalie Zemon Davis. [Full disclosure: the translator and I are kin.] The early reviews (including one in the Chronicle of Higher Education) have been admiring.

The book can be read for pure pleasure, but is also appropriate for use in courses on methodology, on legal history, on historical writing. . . or any course exploring what it is that historians do and how they do it. (I am assigning selections, for example, in a seminar on law and slavery, by way of preparing law students to use raw testimony from U.S. court records in developing their own analyses.)
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Format: Paperback
First published in French in 1989, this book is now available to English readers thanks to translator Thomas Scott-Railton, who appears to have produced a very fine rendering of the original work. As the "Forward" by Natalie Zemon Davis explains, author Arlette Farge is a social historian who has focused on eighteenth-century France. But this book of hers is not another historical monograph. It is, instead, a book about the experience, value, and proper uses of archival research. In other words, in The Allure of the Archives, Farge does not practice her craft so much as she elegantly describes and reflects on it.

The author's approach is to toggle back and forth between descriptive, analytical chapters and brief, autobiographical sections--which tend to reveal how petty and annoying some people in the archives can be, and how one easily distinguishes between veterans and rookies. Along the way, Farge puts in a good word for the necessary task of transcribing old, handwritten documents. Though tedious, she insists that there is something essential and rewarding about such work (15-17).

In a section titled "Her Presence," she notes that if traditional histories often omit women, the archives never do: "In every popular expression of emotion, in groups large and small, women were on the scene and dove in headfirst into the action" (39).

Farge is convinced that the prime way of getting at social history is to focus on conflict: "Why not choose to take a deliberately provocative position on this, and assert that society's character manifests itself through antagonisms and conflicts? It is more important to say this than ever, because today there is a tendency to doubt the centrality of conflict" (43).
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Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
I'm an insider. For the past year I have been doing archival research and Farge's experience, although not exactly like mine (the library staff I work with is kinder, gentler, way more fun), was a bit like reading my days told with insight and grace. If you wonder what archival research is like and why it is so alluring to some and intimidating to others, pick up this book. If you want to know why we shouldn't "just digitize everything," read this book. If you wonder how historians -- or at least those who use archives -- get from raw primary sources to telling the story historically -- read this book. If you're not just curious about the past, but also want to hold it your hands, get thee to your nearest archive. Where I disagree with Farge: it's okay to not use a pencil to take notes. A quiet laptop works fine.
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Format: Paperback
I was drawn to Farge's book by a favorable review from Robert Darnton in the NYRB, and it exceeded my expectations. What a splendid little work! Farge has not only captured the excitement, confusion, and mystery of the archives (for Farge the archives are a labyrinth of almost Borges-ian proportions), she has crafted a deeply thoughtful meditation on the writing of history itself. "When research runs into the opaqueness of the documents, and the documents no longer readily offer up the clarity and convenience of an easy 'it's like this, because that's what's written,' then our work as historians truly begins" (p. 72). Time and again she extrapolates from the complexity of archival work to the challenge of the historian's task, always with balance, humility, and common sense. A pleasure to read (the translation is very smooth) and deeply satisfying -- great book!
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