Whereas I enjoyed most of this book, I found it somewhat uneven with some chapters written in a far more academic manner than others.
In the first chapter, Darnton explores the folk tale with the argument that a full exploration of such tales gives insight into the social construction of reality and thought in previous generations and eras and we can thus explore better the vast differences between modern thought and thought from the Middle Ages. Darnton ridicules the psychoanalytic interpretations of folk tales offered by Bettelheim and Fromm. However he just glosses over the archtypal interpretations of Jung or the structural interpretations of Levi-Strauss. After pages and pages of half told folk tales he concludes that folk tales conveyed conventional wisdom to common folk in a time of great economic and social uncertainty. Life was fragile and this was reflected in these odd tales. Of course some tales have as the moral that we should be kind to strangers and other folk tales have as the moral that we should be careful around strangers, but what the heck, Darnton thinks there are lessons to be learned from them all. He observes that common sense varies from culture to culture and is basically a social construct. I am not sure if I totally agree with him. I would think in all cultures it is best not to argue with a drunk man who holds a gun. However, for some phenomena, Darnton may be correct, common sense differs from culture to culture and era to era. He does point out an observation from study of folk tales across Europe. He finds that Italian and French folk tales are more playful, full of trickstes who jest and humble the powerful; whereas German folk tales are more dark and more often violent. We are immediately struck by the weakness of Darnton's work, which is the issue of sampling. Does he select a random sample of such tales, or all tales, or just the ones he wishes to discuss? I found his arguement that for many peasants who toiled continually in the fields, that history was not conceived as a series of political events to which they were not privy. This is an interesting thought but I suspect that common villagers made up for this with a sense of seasonal history based on planting, harvesting, and storing crops; religious history based on multiple Saint days and other Christian holidays throughout the year; and personal history as one experiences births, marriages, childhoods, deaths in families and friends. Another interesting item from Darnton is that when someone is given a wish in a folk tale, they ask for food. He relates this to the lack of food during much of Europe's history. On this point, I think he wins.
The second chapter is an analysis of a printer's journal where he relates a story from his youth where he and other workers beat to death neighborhood cats. Darnton first puts this story in a context of general cruelty to animals, especially cats. However he then gives it a particular interpretation of social protest by young worker men against the rich employers, many of whom owned cats. He documents well the deterioration of the old guild system and the effect this had on the lowest level workers. Whereas I found his analysis of the killing of the cats to be somewhat of an economic statement during class-warfare, I wish Darnton had commented more on the sadistic cruelty of human beings, particularly males between 13-19.
The third chapter was one of my favorites, though far less dramatic than the first and second chapters. Darnton analyzes a description of a town procession written by an upper-middle class middle-ages male observer who put social annotations throughout the description. The desire of the middle class to emulate the upper class and find many social distinctions between themselves and the the lower classes is perfectly displayed here in this interesting case study.
The fourth chapter also analyzes the work of a single man, however this time it is the extensive files of a spy who maintained records on the intelligensia during the Enlightenment. One reason this chapter is interesting is that writters we now consider to be primary thinkers of the Enlightenment were suspects to this well organized and thoughtful policeman for the social order.
The fifth chapter is the most academic but is very interesting. We learn about the tree of knowledge that Diderot used to construct his theory of human knowledge for the Encyclopedia. We get a delightful story from Borges about categorization which sets the tone of the chapter. We see how the assumptions and work of Descartes, Locke, and Bacon greatly influenced the taxonomy of human knowledge and expereince which created the structure for the Enlightenment thought as well as the structure for this major publication.
The sixth chapter got tiresome as we read about Rousseau and one of his devoted reading fans.
Overall a good book with some unique and thoughtful observations and generalizations. I liked his method,using texts to gain insight into the consciousness of another time and place.