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REVIEWS 303 Robert Darnton. The Forbidden Best-Sellers ofPre-Revolutionary France. New York and London: W.W. Norton, 1995. xxiii + 440pp. US$27.50. ISBN 0-39303720 -7. Robert Darnton. The Corpus of Clandestine Literature in France 1769-1789. New York and London: W.W. Norton, 1995. 260pp. US$32.50. ISBN 0-39303745 -2. These companion volumes are an important stage in Robert Darnton's decades-long attempt to understand how the book as such—its printing, publishing, and selling—affected the political, cultural, and moral lives of the French just before the Revolution. They develop and revise themes and conclusions of his earlier work, especially The Business ofthe Enlightenment (1979), The Literary Underground ofthe Old Régime (1982), portions of The Great Cat Massacre (1984) and of The Kiss ofLamourette (1990). As for many of us who write about this period, the Revolution is for Darnton a huge white bear, impossible to ignore, sitting in the middle of the historian's study while he tries to understand the decades that preceded it. He is in the tradition of Daniel Mornet, who wrote of the intellectual foundation of the French Revolution (see his Les Origines intellectuelles de la Révolutionfrançaise, 1933); yet Mornet had been seduced in part by the logical anomaly, post hoc ergo propter hoc: because participants in the Revolution had been adroit at assimilating many of the ideas in the public discourse before the Revolution , Mornet argues that it was those ideas that provided the impetus for and the energy of that paroxysm. Darnton, recognizing this possible error, tries rather to discover how public opinion in France came to be an important political phenomenon, what constituted it, and how much it may have been a proximate cause of the social, cultural, and political events of 1789 to 1799. In so doing, he argues that the Revolution evolved from a much more complex skein of cultural phenomena than the musings of the philosophes. To prove his points, Darnton has once again drawn on the extraordinary archives of the Société typographique de Neuchâtel (STN), a cache of over fifty thousand bills of lading, orders, letters, registers, and so forth, that he discovered as a graduate student over thirty years ago. Rather than a snapshot, this collection has proven to be a veritable photo album of a crucial period in early modem Europe. Darnton has mined it persistently and brilliantly for hard data that would give us more than inferences about the book trade in the 1770s and 1780s in France. The Corpus is a list of the 720 "forbidden" books Darnton has identified; in a variety of analyses (for example, by numbers of copies ordered, numbers of orders made, geographical distribution), he shows what these statistics can reveal about a nebulous trade. In Forbidden Best-Sellers, Darnton draws important inferences from a meticulous study of how these "forbidden" titles were printed, distributed, stored, confiscated, destroyed , and, most important, read in the two decades preceding the Revolution. His use of the modem term "best-seller" tantalizes, but is not a misnomer. Though the numbers are tiny compared to what book-publishing produces today, they are statistically valid, and indeed show what profited book-selling in a period when the book-dealer was the intellectual's—or the would-be intellectual's—most important connection to clandestine ideas. Ever chary of relying too heavily on the secrets given up by the STN cache, Darnton has found other evidence to sustain his arguments, evidence that he carefully examines. (In fact, this entire study is marked by a caution that tends to reassure the more sceptical reader.) Records of police raids and spies, records of seizures by the customs authorities, clandestine book catalogues, even a list of books ready to be pulped or burned in the 304 EIGHTEENTH-CENTURY FICTION 8:2 Bastille: all of these data are minutely cross-checked with the rich STN files. Still, in the end, the historian relies on his intuition as a reader thoroughly familiar with the eighteenth-century French mind: "After reading thousands of letters, one develops a sense of what sold best. Perhaps subjective arguments should be shunned. But having spent...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1911-0243
Print ISSN
0840-6286
Pages
pp. 303-306
Launched on MUSE
2011-07-06
Open Access
No
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