Worth Reading

As you may have noticed, my holiday hiatus lasted a lot longer than it should have. This was partly due to actual holiday things – I spent a week in Ottawa with my family, avoiding the computer as much as possible – but mostly because I’ve been working on other projects. Specifically, I’ve started working on the YA historical novel that I’ve been planning for about two years now. It’s set in eighteenth-century France, and honestly I think I’m most comfortable writing about eighteenth-century France than any other time period, including the present, but I still find myself doing a shocking amount of research (apparently the four years I spent at university studying French history just wasn’t enough). Between that, and my full-time job, and my occasional (mostly futile) attempts to find freelance work, I haven’t had a whole lot of time for blogging.

Which isn’t to say I’m going to stop blogging; I just can’t do nearly as much of it as I’d like to, and I wouldn’t be surprised if a fair amount of my blogging related in some way to the research I’m doing for my book. Which brings us to the actual point of today’s post! Because, you see, much of the research I have done has involved some really awesome books, which those of you who approach my level of nerdiness might enjoy. Yes, this is self-indulgent, but I never miss a chance to talk about the books I like. So: books!

The book that actually inspired me was Fragile Lives: Violence, Power, and Solidarity in Eighteenth-Century Paris by Arlette Farge. This book is not nearly as obscure or as dull as the title suggests. It is social history at its best – meticulously researched (she basically went into the Paris police archives, read everything, and reconstructed everyday working-class lives based on both the evidence and the omissions therein), well-written (even in translation! I know, right) and profoundly human. It deals really well with gender and class, both of which are often neglected in histories of this period. Also, eighteenth-century Paris was FULL OF SPIES. Yes, that it what my novel is about.

So, the main inspiration for my (fictional) novel is a non-fiction book. This is extremely typical of me, since, for someone who really loves fiction, and who actually wrote four novels before the age of 16 (I was not very popular in high school) I read very little fiction these days. However, I have recently been rereading Philip Pullman’s Sally Lockhart trilogy (The Ruby in the Smoke, The Shadow in the North and The Tiger in the Well) which, despite Pullman’s sometimes weird narrative style, are some of the best YA novels out there. Sally Lockhart is kind of like a nineteenth-century Veronica Mars, which is to say, completely badass, and good at math, and also at solving crimes. (These are the only books in this list not set in the eighteenth-century, or in France; they are instead set in Victorian London, which is almost as good.)

Also, about twenty years ago Hilary Mantel wrote a book called A Place of Greater Safety, which is probably the best novel about the French Revolution ever (take that, Charles Dickens). As of about two years ago, it is no longer out of print, and I actually saw it at my local evil chain bookstore yesterday. Hilary Mantel also won the Booker Prize for her latest book, Wolf Hall, which I purchased yesterday at said evil chain bookstore and am very much looking forward to reading.

And then there’s Robert Darnton. If you have any interest in French cultural history at all, pick up a copy of The Great Cat Massacre at your local library and read the hell out of it. Darnton is one of those awesome people who gets that cultural and intellectual history are not actually very different from social history at all, and that the Enlightenment wasn’t all about lawyers reading Voltaire, and that not only is popular culture important, but that as a historian it may actually be the only means by which we can really understand the period. My favourite book of his is Forbidden Best-Sellers of Prerevolutionary France, which unfortunately I am not using for my research since I lent it to someone who has not yet returned it. I’ve also relied pretty heavily on The Literary Underground of the Old Regime (noticing a trend yet?), which goes into a lot less depth than Forbidden Best-Sellers but is still full of awesome case studies and microhistories.

If you’re still not convinced, here’s an excerpt from The Great Cat Massacre‘s chapter on Diderot and the Encyclopédie (warning: he draws heavily on Foucault in this chapter, in case that’s not your thing):

We order the world according to categories that we take for granted simply because they are given. When confronted with an alien way of organizing experience, however, we sense the frailty of our own categories, and everything threatens to come undone. Things hold together only because they can be slotted into a classificatory scheme that remains unquestioned. […]

Pigeon-holing is therefore an exercise in power. A subject related to the trivium rather than the quadrivium, or to the “soft” rather than the “hard” sciences, may wither on the vine. A mis-shelved book may disappear forever. An enemy defined as less than human may be annihilated. […] Hair, fingernail paring, and feces go into magic potions because they represent the ambiguous border areas of the body, where the organism spills over into the surrounding material world. All borders are dangerous. If left unguarded, they could break down, our categories could collapse, and our world dissolve in chaos.

Setting up categories and policing them is therefore a serious business. A philosopher who attempted to redraw the boundaries of the world of knowledge would be tampering with the taboo. Even if he steered clear of sacred subjects, he could not avoid danger; for knowledge is inherently ambiguous.

I could copy out the rest of the chapter (if it weren’t for copyright and stuff), but I think you get the idea. History: it’s actually pretty awesome, sometimes. My next post, whenever I get around to it, should be about something more current, but I make no promises. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have research to do.

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Comments

  • Loose Talk  On January 10, 2010 at 5:14 pm

    Another 18th century-ist! I’m doing a PhD in 18th century French Art, but haven’t read too much pure history (or cultural history) yet. It’s on my list, especially as I start my dissertation in the field. So it seems your interests lie mostly in the pre-Revolutionary 18th century, right? I’m adding “The Literary Underground” to my book list, as well as “Forbidden Best-Sellers” and “Fragile Lives” (sadly there’s no time for fiction right now), so thanks! If you ever want to delve into art a little, I could give you some recs in return, but I won’t just assume it would be relevant for you. Although the best art history is, of course, very socially based. I will be returning.

    • Brett K  On January 11, 2010 at 1:14 pm

      Welcome fellow 18th-century nerd! It’s nice to know I’m not alone here in the blogosphere. My research has actually focused mainly on the Revolution itself, though lately I’ve become a bit disillusioned with Revolutionary historiography and started broadening my horizons to encompass the earlier parts of the century as well. I’d definitely appreciate any recs you could provide. I haven’t studied any art history so far, but I know that a lot of scholars of “pure” history draw upon ideas developed by art historians, particularly when dealing with issues such as gender, where traditional historical method can leave much to be desired – so, yes, I imagine some familiarity with eighteenth-century art would be quite useful when I finally get around to going to grad school.

      Thanks for reading, and good luck with your dissertation!

  • Loose Talk  On January 11, 2010 at 3:09 pm

    Well in that case, my two favorite books on art history are Thomas Crow’s “Emulation” (he also happens to be my dissertation advisor). But it’s a page turner, as far as art history goes, and seriously, seriously wonderful. And Darcy Grimaldo Grigsby’s “Extremities”, which might be my favorite art history book ever, in any period. I can’t recommend “Extremities” enough, actually. Those both deal with Revolutionary art, but they’re good places to start!

    • Brett K  On January 11, 2010 at 5:58 pm

      Awesome, thanks. I’ll definitely check those out. I take it you study the Revolution, then? Have you read any Lynn Hunt? She’s written about the Revolution from pretty much every perspective, and her recent work (particularly The Family Romance of the French Revolution) takes a really interesting interdisciplinary approach to Revolutionary popular culture. It has its flaws, but it’s definitely worth reading.

  • Loose Talk  On January 11, 2010 at 6:36 pm

    Would you believe that I just added “The Family Romance” to my Amazon wishlist this morning? My dissertation is on 18th century French drawing, culminating in the work of Jacques-Louis David and his students during the Revolution. I’ll definitely check The Family Romance out when I’m done with this stupid paper on Watteau that I’m writing now. But I hope to start blogging about 18th century art more in the future, so hopefully you and I can get a good dialogue going!

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