CHESS Chart: Do Books Cause Revolutions?

CHESS hosts Robert Darnton this Friday (Whitney Humanities Center, 208 @ 12:30) for a conversation about his most recent project, A Literary Tour of France. The site captures the supply and demand of literature in France during the Enlightenment and on the eve of the French Revolution. The story told here is one not just of brilliant ideas or great books but about smuggling, literary surveillance, and illicit attacks on the French monarchy. It also shows how many of the most popular books of the French Enlightenment were on subjects like public administration and political economy.

Although it would surprise no one that the consumption of books increased between the middle of the fifteenth century and the end of the eighteenth, European countries experienced the growth of print culture very differently. Britain became a nation of readers during its contentious 17th century while absolutist France lagged far behind until catching up somewhat during its own age of revolutions. But the Netherlands, which became a major source of books for French readers, put them all to shame, consuming more than twice as many books per capita during the eighteenth century than the British. Spain and Russia, however, consumed few books per capita, suggesting that reading remained the province of a small elite rather than a growing middle class pursuit.

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Source: ELTJO BURINGH AND JAN LUITEN VAN ZANDEN, “Charting the ‘Rise of the West’:Manuscripts and Printed Books inEurope, A Long-Term Perspective fromthe Sixth through Eighteenth Centuries,” Journal of Economic History 69, no. 2 (June 2009): 421.

What can book publishing tell us about politics and political culture? What is the relationship between book publishing and the growth of capitalism? For more on these fascinating and important subjects, join CHESS’s workshop this Friday or add your own thoughts to the comments below.


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