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The Forbidden Best-Sellers of Pre-Revolutionary France


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Robert Darnton is the Carl H. Pforzheimer University Professor Emeritus and University Librarian Emeritus at Harvard University. His honors include a MacArthur Prize, the National Humanities Medal, the Los Angeles Times Book Prize, and election to the French Legion of Honor. He is the author of Censors at Work, The Great Cat Massacre, and The Forbidden Bestsellers of Pre-Revolutionary France, winner of the National Book Critics Circle Award.


With this volume, Darnton consolidates his position as one of the most innovative and influential historians of 18th-century France. For over 25 years, Darnton (Shelby Cullom Davis Professor of European History, Princeton) has been studying reading habits and book selling during the period often referred to as the Enlightenment. The present work is published conjointly with a companion volume, The Corpus of Clandestine Literature in France, 1769-1789. The latter gives statistical details for what Forbidden Bestsellers covers more descriptively. The gist of what Darnton says is that philosophes like Voltaire and Rousseau had far less impact on French readers than did the anonymous authors of scandalous, libelous, treasonous, and/or pornographic works, most of which were smuggled into France from the Netherlands, Switzerland, or the German states. Taken together, they had a corrosive effect on all established values and practices and thus contributed to the outbreak of the French Revolution. Very highly recommended for all libraries.‘T.J. Schaeper, St. Bonaventure Univ., N.Y.

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 Société typographique de Neuchâtel (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 Thérèse philosophe (probably by Marquis d'Argens); the philosophical utopian fantasy L'An 2440 by Louis-Sébastien Mercier; and the libelle (think libelous) Anecdotes sur Mme la comtesse du Barry ascribed to Mathieu-François 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 Thérèse and Anecdotes are still ribaldly amusing. (Mar.)

"A gripping portrait of the social, literary, and political dynamics at work in prerevolutionary France." -- Michiko Kakutani - New York Times

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