One of the most difficult aspects of being a book historian, or an aspiring one, is that no one actually knows what that is.
I know that for the majority of the US population “book” and “history” are two of the most boring words imaginable. Putting them together is liable to elicit raised eyebrows or a blank stare. Then I get the questions.
“So, what is that, exactly?”
And my favorite, “But what are you going to do with that?”
So I absolutely melted as I read the introduction to Robert Darnton’s The Business of Enlightenment: A Publishing History of the Encyclopédie. I was already a fan of Darnton’s after reading The Great Cat Massacre back in college, before I knew there was such a field as book history. Later, when I began reading as many foundational works of book history as possible, I was pleased to discover that Darnton and some of my other favorite historians were actually specialists in l’histoire du livre. (This only helped confirm my sense that book history was my great cosmic destiny.)
So this weekend, after it had languished on my aforementioned book list for a very long time, I began The Business of Enlightenment. I’m sorely tempted to have the opening passage printed in massive quantities just to hand out to people who ask about my chosen field.
By recounting the life story of the Encyclopédie, this book is meant to dispel some of the obscurity surrounding the history of books in general. A book about a book: the subject seems arcane, and it could contract into the infinitely small, like a mirror reflected in a mirror. If done properly, however, it should enlarge the understanding of many aspects of early modern history, for l’histoire du livre, as it is known in France, opens onto the broadest questions of historical research. How did great intellectual movements like the Enlightenment spread through society? How far did they reach, and how deeply did they penetrate? What form did the thought of the philosophes acquire when it materialized into books, and what does this process reveal about the transmission of ideas? Did the material basis of literature and the technology of its production have much bearing on its substance and its diffusion? How did the literary market place function, and what were the roles of publishers, book dealers, traveling salesmen, and other intermediaries in cultural communication? How did publishing function as a business, and how did it fit into the political as well as the economic systems of pre-revolutionary Europe? The questions could be multiplied endlessly because books touched on such a vast range of human activity—everything from picking rags to transmitting the word of God. They were products of artisanal labor, objects of economic exchange, vehicles of ideas, and elements in political and religious conflict.
I’ve finished the first two chapters, and the book continues to gratify. Darnton’s lively, engaging prose illuminates the often byzantine commercial practices of 18th century publishing, as well as the intellectual and cultural contexts of the Encyclopédie.
My only complaint is that all the quotes in French, some as long as a full page, have been left untouched because their unique character would be lost in translation. I did take French in college, but I’m pretty rusty, and lately I’ve been focusing all my language energy on Latin (I do plan on refreshing my French at some point in the near future). So I feel that I’m missing a lot, especially a sense of the personalities involved, whose personal and business letters I can’t comprehend.
But at the least, I now have a book history handout for everyone else. Eventually I could have an entire series of tracts for the unenlightened—with illustrations! I’ll leave them in the subways and force them on pedestrians. Genius.