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18th Century Book Sellers and Promoters: Equals Amongst the Giants of Enlightened Thought

By Edited Jul 15, 2016 0 0

18th Century Book Sellers and Promoters



      It was a cultural movement that spanned less than 150 years yet its impact was so profound it can still be felt today. Radiating from its origins in Europe to points across the globe, the philosophers of the day, harnessing the powers of reason and knowledge, sought to reform society and the world. Despite the authoritarian stronghold the monarchy and organized religion held over society or the diversity of perspectives these philosophical thinkers maintained, knowledge was advanced, man was empowered, and a network of intellectual exchange was developed via the written word. The book and the men who published them not only advanced the boundaries of knowledge but directed its course as well. 

     Robert Darnton, a recognized expert on 18th Century France is also a pioneer in the field of the history of the book. In his book The Business of the Enlightenment: A Publishing History of the ‘Encyclopédie’, 1775-1800, his expertise is focused on the publication of one book, albeit a book of decisive importance. The Encyclopédide, ou Dictionnaire Raisonné Des Sciences, translated in English as “The Encyclopedia or a Systematic Dictionary of the Sciences, Arts and Crafts” was edited and finally published by Denis Diderot in 1771.[1] The Encyclopedia was unique for many reasons, not the least of which was the fact that Diderot enlisted the expertise of many contributors to produce the work which would ultimately according to Diderot “change the way people think." [1] What began as a proposed French translation to Ephraim Chambers Cyclopaedia, Diderot’s work would instead become the published compendium of the Enlightenment movement; its vast array of profound thought and revelation, its innumerous participants, in essence the entire cultural movement accumulated, recorded, and bound into twenty-eight volumes. [1]

     While moderately banned by the French government the work still enjoyed immense popularity and circulation. Further testament to its value is the fact that this work was reissued and revised a number of times through 1832 when it reached more than 166 volumes with over two thousand contributors. The list of contributors, in all versions, is impressive and represents the most prolific thinkers in every discipline. Especially significant is the introduction or “Preliminary Discourse” written by Jean Le Rond d’Alembert which contained the tree of Diderot and d’Alembert. Literally a chart of human knowledge, the tree divided data into three basic branches; memory and history, reason and philosophy, and imagination and poetry which sought to dispel superstitions by enhancing access to true knowledge. It was and remains a work of astounding proportions and significance; an undisputed example of pristine enlightenment thought and writing. It is also, according to Darnton a work of marketing genius. [2]

     Few will deny that understanding how readers are influenced by literary works is no easy task; a point Darnton acknowledges often in his own work. To better understand the 18th Century book consumer Darnton looked at the advertising, specifically the publicity used to promote the Encyclopédie, for clues and insight. What he discovered was that despite blatant falsehoods and half truths, the consumers who purchased this work, itself “a significant act when considered culturally as well as economically” prohibitive, expected to garner from the work exactly what the promoters promised; “a compendium of modern knowledge and a synthesis of modern philosophy." [1] This point, though subtle is very important as it illustrates a transfer of power from author to publisher. The words and the knowledge contained in the work were not consumed on face value but rather a prescribed value; a value advertised by the publishers and promoters.  In essence the public came to believe that ownership would verify an elevated position or status within society, very much like contemporary status symbols are perceived today; luxury cars and homes to wealth, job titles to power, or academic degrees to wisdom. From this perspective Darnton’s approach reveals true consumer insight and with it a glimpse into the power over the public maintained by book publishers and sellers.        

     The publication and promotion of the Encyclopédide is only one example that illustrates how the business of books, that is the process of putting thought, enlightened or otherwise, into print and print into the hands of many readers, was changing dramatically. The print culture that ensued would quickly change the types of literature being read as well as the language they were written in. The philosophers, theologians, and scientists knew their words had the power to transform society and it would not be long before the men responsible for publishing those works became equally powerful. [1] The Enlightened giants, Voltaire, Kant, Rousseau, Montesquieu, and Diderot, only to name a few, were not alone in putting thought to paper. Countless others, common men and women also joined the fray and while these writings often amounted to little more than simple ranting their sheer existence and volume speak to the power of the written word. There was a ferocious appetite developing for written material and as such the rate of literacy and the volume of literature reached flood levels during the eighteenth century. Whether the works were considered profound enlightened thought or were the work of commoners, a good portion of it was banned and censored by the crown. Though, ever resourceful, this fact it seems did more to inspire authors and publishers to find inventive ways around censorship and thus the underground market was born. 

     Louis XV was not oblivious to the fact that publicly banning and burning books would do more to promote their circulation than to curtail it.[3]  Instead booksellers were quietly imprisoned and books simply disappeared. Of course with the level of bureaucracy the French government built around censorship nothing really disappeared but rather was classified, reclassified, and classified again until they were eventually sequestered or destroyed. [3] Despite these exact efforts the market for underground books flourished. Topics ranged from philosophy to pornography to political commentaries, the later being little more than a slanderous stab at some public figure. Never absent from the mix were works by the giants of enlightenment though. While records are difficult to come by one can piece together a rather accurate picture of the book trade from the papers of one of its largest publishers, the Société typographique de Neuchâtel or abbreviated as the STN. The letters exchanged among booksellers, and the actual daily ledgers and accounting they maintained reveal tremendous insight into the consumer mindset and demand.[3] The records of one particular bookseller in Lorraine in conjunction with the proliferation of daily correspondence seem to verify that information flowed and book sales remained profitable despite any efforts by the monarchy or church to stop it. [3]             

     Clearly word of mouth maintained a peaked interest in these works thus keeping demand consistently high. Again we can be reasonably assured that publihers efforts did much to create a demand despite the fact that many of these works were officially banned because citizens were aware of and interested in their content. More importantly we are able to ascertain that book publishers, asserting a vested interest in written material, not only satisfied the public’s thirst for a variety of works, but in fact directed it through advertising and publicity. We are left to wonder if the Encyclopédide and other printed works were left to stand solely on the merit of their content, would the general public, which is the majority of everyday citizens, have become aware of their existence as quickly. It is a topic that clearly warrants further research.





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  1. Robert Darnton The Business of the Enlightenment: Publishing History of the Encyclopedie, 1775-1800. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1987.
  2. Benjamin Heller "The Encyclopedia of Diderot and d'Alembert." Collaborative Translation Project. 18/March/2012. 2818/July/2014 <Web >
  3. Robert Darnton The Forbidden Best Sellers of Pre-Revolutionary France. New York: WW Norton, 1995.

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