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Drawing on twenty-five years of research, Darnton reveals the illegal book trade in rich detail. He explores the cultural and political significance of these “bad” books and introduces readers to three of the most influential illegal best-sellers: Therese Philosophe, an anti-clerical blend of sex and metaphysics; L’An 2440, an attack on the Old Regime in the form of a utopian fantasy set in a future Paris; and Anecdotes sur Mme la comtesse du Barry, a deliciously scathing work of political slander with the king as its target. Substantial excerpts from these works, gathered at the end of the book, make excellent reading today and shed light on elements of our own political culture.
When the apprentices of a Paris printing shop in the 1730’s held a series of mock trials and then hanged all the cats they could lay their hands on, why did they find it so hilariously funny that they choked with laughter when they reenacted it in pantomime some twenty times? Why in the 18th century version of “Little Red Riding Hood” did the wolf eat the child at the end? What did the anonymous townsman of Montpelier have in mind when he kept an exhaustive dossier on all the activities of his native city? These are some of the provocative questions Robert Darnton attempts to answer in this dazzling series of essays that probe the ways of thought in what we like to call “The Age of Enlightenment.”