A great book about an even greater book is a rare event in publishing. Darnton's history of the "Encyclopedie" is such an occasion. The author explores some fascinating territory in the French genre of "histoire du livre," and at the same time he tracks the diffusion of Enlightenment ideas. He is concerned with the form of the thought of the great philosophes as it materialized into books and with the way books were made and distributed in the business of publishing. This is cultural history on a broad scale, a history of the process of civilization.In tracing the publishing story of Diderot's "Encyclopedie," Darnton uses new sources--the papers of eighteenth-century publishers--that allow him to respond firmly to a set of problems long vexing historians. He shows how the material basis of literature and the technology of its production affected the substance and diffusion of ideas. He fully explores the workings of the literary market place, including the roles of publishers, book dealers, traveling salesmen, and other intermediaries in cultural communication. How publishing functioned as a business, and how it fit into the political as well as the economic systems of prerevolutionary Europe are set forth. The making of books touched on this vast range of activities because books were products of artisanal labor, objects of economic exchange, vehicles of ideas, and elements in political and religious conflict.The ways ideas traveled in early modern Europe, the level of penetration of Enlightenment ideas in the society of the Old Regime, and the connections between the Enlightenment and the French Revolution are brilliantly treated by Darnton. In doing so he unearths a double paradox. It was the upper orders in society rather than the industrial bourgeoisie or the lower classes that first shook off archaic beliefs and took up Enlightenment ideas. And the state, which initially had suppressed those ideas, ultimately came to favor them. Yet at this high point in the diffusion and legitimation of the Enlightenment, the French Revolution erupted, destroying the social and political order in which the Enlightenment had flourished.Never again will the contours of the Enlightenment be drawn without reference to this work. Darnton has written an indispensable book for historians of modern Europe."
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(235mm x 155mm x 39mm)
Harvard University Press
Publisher: Harvard University Press
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US Kirkus Review »
This is the story of how the most profoundly influential book of the 18th century actually reached most of its readers. The quarto edition of Diderot's great work put out between 1777 and 1779 by a consortium of French and Swiss publishers - a speculation inspired by the success of the Encyclopedie in the more expensive original folio version - can be studied from its inception to the final winding-up of accounts through the luckily preserved records of the Swiss partner, the Societe typographique de Neuchatel. It was a mass-market operation beyond any previous publishing venture, and its logistics strained the entire French and Swiss printing trades to the limits of existing technology. The printing was farmed out to dozens of presses, and the very wages of ragpickers were driven up by the ensuing paper shortage. While the Lyons and Neuchatel partners traded insults about the quality of each other's printing jobs ("Your volume 6 is abominable"), the compositors and pressmen themselves maintained an idiosyncratic, "task-oriented" pace fully documented in the STN records - which actually allow us to identify the man responsible for a thumbprint in volume 15. Advertisements in leading European journals announced that "this book makes it unnecessary to read practically all others"; meanwhile the editor hired by the Lyons partner had set to work "improving" Diderot's text until the subscribers complained. The result of this amazing ballet of activity was of course the diffusion of Enlightenment - not, Darnton finds, among the rising industrial bourgeoisie, but primarily among the more genteel professionals who were to come into their own some decades after the Revolution. Darnton's intricate searchings through subscription accounts and wage-books, though chiefly directed toward bibliographical historians, turn up an incredible vein of material for the study of labor history, the process of intellectual dissemination, and the "uneven march of capitalism" on the eve of the Revolution. The extensive untranslated French quotations will keep this from some of the audience it deserves, but it is a significant addition to the existing resources for the study of how books actually find their way into our hands. (Kirkus Reviews)
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Author Biography - Robert Darnton
Robert Darnton is Carl H. Pforzheimer University Professor and University Librarian at Harvard University.