This was one of the many great books I read in the History of the Enlightenment class I took my senior year of college. My professor told us that Robert Darnton is his main rival in that field, which meant that he's a really good writer who really knows his stuff, does all of the thorough research, and is really familiar with so many facets of the Enlightenment. Though some of the chapters can be a bit academic at times, it never really merges into boring-academic style. He still manages to be interesting while dealing with some rather academic material, such as marketing, ordering, shipping, and which books were selling best with which booksellers. Although most of us did feel that Mr. Darnton used too many untranslated French words, phrases, and titles, like kind of showing off or being pretentious. (This is no longer the era when most people could speak and read French as a second language!)
Mr. Darnton breaks down these forbidden best-sellers into the three main categories of political slander, philosophical pornography, and utopian fantasy. Too often we view history through the lens of the ruling-classes or the well-off, not the common masses who were not privileged enough to experience the same things that the rich and the bourgeoisie did. The hoi polloi of pre-revolutionary France were not reading authors such as Voltaire, Montesquieu, Rousseau, Diderot, and d'Holbach. They were reading authors such as Louis-Sébastien Mercier, Mathieu-François Pidansat de Mairobert, François de Baculard d'Arnaud, Pietro Bacci Aretino, and Jean Baptiste de Boyer d'Argens. The common people would have no connection to nor use for such high-minded things as philosophy, history, science, and theology. They wanted easily-accessible works on subjects they could grasp, understand, and relate to. However, it was through these books that they ended up soaking up a lot of the Enlightenment ideas anyway, such as personal freedom, the decadence and corruption of the ruling classes, and the importance of the individual.
To round off the book, there are three lengthy excerpts provided from prominent examples of the main categories of books Mr. Darnton focuses on--'L'An Deux Mille Quatre Cent Quarante, Rêve s'il en Fût Jamais' ('The Year 2440: A Dream If Ever There Was One'), 'Thérèse Philosophe,' and 'Anecdotes sur Mme. la Comtesse du Barry.' The first title is utopian fantasy, and is rather like a French version of Rip van Winkle, only this character has been sleeping for over 600 years instead of just 100. He awakens and naturally finds that everything is changed, unable to believe he is now 700 years old, and how much society has changed for the better. The second title is philosophical pornography, though I personally would classify it more as erotica than pornography, seeing as how there's an actual storyline and the point of the book is to communicate ideas about religion and philosophy, not just to show a bunch of characters in bed or engaging in self-gratification. My favorite character was M. l'abbé T.; it's really something else to see this priest railing against his own religion and saying things like "God would only have to destroy the devil and we would all be saved. There must be a lot of injustice or weakness on his part!" and "Thus, with this foreknowledge, God, in creating us, knew in advance that we would be infallibly damned and eternally miserable." He really doesn't pull any punches in lighting into the hypocrisy of society and the priesthood, that's for sure! The final title is political slander, and tells the story of the well-known Countess du Barry, the mistress of King Louis XV. There are a number of racy scenes in this one as well, along with some R-rated songs with the subject of her goings-on with the king.
Overall, though it's not exactly the type of book one brings to the beach or reads to pass some time on a rainy day, it should be required reading for all those interested in the Enlightenment and the types of books that the hoi polloi were really reading back then. It certainly made me interested in seeking out the full-length books that are excerpted!