A journey into the peculiar, nearly lawless world of bookselling in France circa 1778.
Darnton, a longtime scholar of French culture and trenchant commentator on books and publishing (Censors at Work: How States Shaped Literature, 2014, etc.), has spent decades poring through the files of the Société typographique de Neuchâtel, a Swiss publishing house. Little distinguished STN from its competitors just before the French Revolution, which serves the author’s purposes well: his goal is to explore how books were generally distributed and sold and which books were most commonly consumed (mostly Enlightenment writers like Rousseau, religious works, pornography, and scurrilous titles about royalty and religions). The available evidence is mainly in ledgers and stiff business correspondence, but Darnton finds an arc by following Jean-François Favarger, an STN sales representative who, in 1778, circled the country visiting booksellers. Boots on the ground were essential because the book trade of the time was almost unmanageably chaotic. Publishers freely pirated each other’s works (part of Favarger’s job was to suss out what was worth pirating); books were shipped unbound, prone to the ravages of weather and transit; border smuggling was rampant to avoid the monarchy’s control of the trade; and booksellers could often be lax about payment. (While on the road, Favarger maintained rankings of booksellers’ reliability.) “We don’t know of any branch of commerce that is more disagreeable or unrewarding than the book trade,” one bookseller grumbled. Darnton’s enthusiasm for his subject is palpable, and he delivers bucolic descriptions (with contemporary illustrations) of Favarger’s stops in places like Lyon, Bordeaux, and Dijon. But at heart this is an academic, largely dry business history. Favarger is an intrepid salesman, but his greatest drama involves replacing a horse.
Thoughtful and well-researched, but nonscholars would be satisfied with an essay-length treatment of this esoteric moment in publishing history.