Libraries & Culture 38.4 (2003) 412-413
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Lumières du Nord: Imprimeurs, libraires, et "gens du livre" dans le Nord au XVIII siècle (1701-1789), Dictionnaire prosopographique . By Frédéric Barbier with the collaboration of Sabine Juratic and Michel Vangheluwe. Geneva: Librairie Droz, 2002. 544 pp. 83.23. ISBN 2-600-00683-4.
Frédéric Barbier, a director of research at France's National Center of Scientific Research (best known by its French acronym: CNRS), has written a number of books and articles on books, bookstores, and libraries as well as a History of the Media from Diderot to the Internet (note: All translations are by the reviewer). Now, with Sabine Juratic and Michel Vangheluwe, he has published the first volume of a series on those who distributed books in eighteenth-century France.
The printers, booksellers, and "book people" referenced in this book's subtitle were the foot soldiers of the Enlightenment. Like soldiers at war, they were at the front lines, carrying the campaign forward and bearing the attendant risks. While Voltaire philosophized at Ferney, those who sold his works often exposed themselves to arrest, confiscation of their stocks, and financial ruin. Though the book describes both official and unofficial channels of distribution, the issue of forbidden works recurs all through the text, and records of arrest and confiscation provide much of its source material.
In this connection, geography is significant: roughly, the Nord (North)/Pas de Calais region borders Belgium and runs partway along the English Channel. The shortest route from the uncensored presses of Amsterdam to Paris ran through this region. The region had only recently joined France, whose customs agents were unpopular enough that, in one case, they narrowly escaped being burned alive. Its "very dense network of roads and highways" (121) and laws that favored Parisian booksellers to the detriment of those in the provinces also encouraged illicit commerce.
A sense of risk and adventure is only part of what infuses this densely footnoted, rigorously academic work with vigor and color. As exciting in its way is the image of an increasingly literate society hungry for reading matter, as evidenced by the variety of sellers who responded to this demand. These included not only printers, binders, and booksellers but second-hand clothes dealers, peddlers, and even taverners, not to mention individuals who sold their private libraries or smugglers for whom books were one more popular commodity like coffee or chocolate. Reading rooms and book rental also helped answer the demand, which was not all for philosophy, of course, though works like [End Page 412] Voltaire's History of the Century of Louis XV appear in more than one inventory. Light works, ranging from popular fiction to pornography, were widely if surreptitiously sold.
The familiar contradictions of eighteenth-century France appear here as well. Those charged with censorship often winked at works they were meant to suppress, while established booksellers invited repression—of their competitors. Benedictine monks owned a full set of the Encyclopedia, widely considered contradictory to religion. Some who sold books could not read them.
The book's second subtitle is "Prosopographic Dictionary" and the lively, informative opening chapters summarize and digest information that is presented more categorically in the second section of the book. The latter is a reference work that can be most simply described as a catalog of all known individuals who sold books in the Nord/Pas de Calais region in the eighteenth century. (The authors themselves define prosopography as "the most exhaustive study possible of a population, in this case defined by their professional affiliations" .) Each entry for each individual lists, as far as is known, his or her birthplace, parentage, marriage, training, professional activities, and other relevant information. Some of these entries run for several pages. More often, they are limited to a few lines. Though the individual entries are frequently interesting, this section is a work of reference. It will be invaluable to specialized scholars but of less interest to more general readers...