18th Century French Reading

Robert Darnton’s wonderful book, The Great Cat Massacre and Other Episodes in French Cultural History, is fascinating reading for anyone interested in the history of books.  In one section, he speculates on how people actually read a book in the 18th century.  Darnton is aware of the difficulties of moving from the what to the how of reading, but courageously proceeds.  He notes that “Books as physical objects were very different in the eighteenth century from what they are today, and their readers perceived them differently.”  Substitute “in various time periods” for “in the eighteenth century” and this statement is a concise raison d’etre for book conservation.

The following extended quotation is from the chapter titled “Readers Respond to Rousseau.”

“This typographical consciousness has disappeared now that books are mass-produced for a mass audience.  In the eighteenth century they were made by hand.  Every sheet of paper was produced individually by an elaborate procedure and differed from every other sheet in the same volume.  Every letter, word, and line was composed according to an art that gave the artisan a chance to express his individuality.  Books themselves were individuals, each copy possessing its own character.  The reader of the Old Regime approached them with care, for he paid attention to the stuff of literature as well as its message.  He would finger the paper in order to gauge its weight, translucence, and elasticity (a whole vocabulary existed to describe the esthetic qualities of paper, which usually represented at least half the manufacturing cost of a book before the nineteenth century.)  He would study the design of the type, examine the spacing, check the register, evaluate the layout, and scrutinize the evenness of the printing.  He would sample a book the way we might taste a glass of wine; for he looked at the impressions on the paper, not merely across them to their meaning.  And once he possessed himself fully of a book, in all its physicality, he would settle down to read it.” (pp. 223-224)

3 Replies to “18th Century French Reading”

  1. Perfect timing with the quote. The topic of my conservation class this week is “Artifact and context” and how the various aspects of a book as an artifact shapes our understanding of the book as content – and then I’ll try to convince the students that “Yes, this has something to do with conservation.” I’ll use this.

    One correction – in the quote you have “The reader of the Old Regime approached them with are…” I’m guessing the last word should be “care”

  2. Thanks for catching the type, it should be “care”.

    Sometimes I wish books didn’t have words in them– it might be easier to validate and defend their worth (and the expense to conserve them) if they were only visual. Or if they will be housed in museums, rather than libraries, which some see as the future, it might be easier to defend them as products of technology, and not have to extend this to a textual relation. Darnton makes a good move (the whole book is a great read, by the way) by considering the phenomenology of reading, rather than what was read.

  3. Great post — doesn’t everyone still read a book like that? 🙂

    Admittedly, with most modern books, you’re inspecting them with a sense of disgust, but I still have a good hard look at them before I read them.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: