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Five decades ago, a young scholar named Robert Darnton followed up on a footnote that took him to the archives of the “Typographical Society...

Five decades ago, a young scholar named Robert Darnton followed up on a footnote that took him to the archives of the “Typographical Society of Neuchatel”(S.T.N.) in Switzerland, not far from the French border. Many years, and thousands of documents later, Professor Robert Darnton has published a new book, A Literary Tour de France: The World of Books on the Eve of the French Revolution (Oxford University Press, 2018). Apart from illuminating the everyday life of the trade that enabled and shaped French reading practices, the book is a methodological feat that mines an impressive array of sources to access the financial, legal, political, and cultural history of book distribution before the French Revolution.

Following the trail of Jean-Francois Favager, a sales rep of the S.T.N. who toured France in 1778, Darnton’s thirteen chapters trace his journey from Neuchatel, across the border into France, down the southeast to Lyon and Marseille, west towards Bordeaux, then north before crossing back to Besancon and home (with many stops in between). As the book pursues Favager’s story, the reader learns about the challenges of travel by horse in this period, including border-crossings, the network of roads that connected French towns and cities in the eighteenth century, and the many obstacles that arose along the way. A history of the movement of foreign books into a French market, A Literary Tour de France also explores the histories of smuggling, piracy, contract and business law and values. Focused on the world of books in the French provinces, rather than Paris, this study offers today’s reader insight into the demands and supplies of their eighteenth-century counterparts and the range of booksellers who sold their wares. The result is a rich and textured account of how and what many French people were able to read in the decades before the upheaval of 1789.

I encourage all of you to visit the books companion website, including a treasure of primary sources that will enhance and extend the reading of A Literary Tour de France.

Roxanne Panchasi is an Associate Professor in the Department of History at Simon Fraser University. Her current research focuses on the representation of nuclear weapons and testing in France and its empire since 1945. She lives and reads in Vancouver, Canada. If you have a recent title to suggest for the podcast, please send an email to:

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