Darnton, The Forbidden Bestsellers of Pre-Revolutionary France

Robert Darnton, The Forbidden Best-Sellers of Pre-Revolutionary France. WW Norton, London & New York, 1996.

This is a book with a very tight focus: the illegal book trade in France in the couple of decades before the Revolution. A little under two-thirds of it is history, well-written, well-sourced, and not infrequently entertaining (although I should recommend having read at least a summary of the period in question before diving it); the remainder is devoted to significant extracts in translation from three of the most popular illegal books with which Darnton is concerned.

Pornography and philosophy were close kindred in 18th century France, it seems, and both were equally dangerous for the people who traded in them. Indeed, one of the most popular novels of the period is a philosophical tract with pornographic interludes, or a pornographic tract with philosophical interludes – they were, at any rate, close bedfellows, and booksellers asked their suppliers to provide them with works in the “philosophical” line when they meant illegal books of any flavour.

It is a very interesting read, although now I want to read more about illegal literature and censorship in Europe as a whole in the 18th century.