3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
A sparkling read,
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This review is from: Encyclopédie: The triumph of reason in an unreasonable age (Hardcover)Most of the French Encyclopaedists were men of sparkle and wit, and Philipp Blom's book shares these qualities. We get an excellent account of the historical background, of the contents and subversive nature and outlook of the Encyclopédie, of the immense task of compiling its 17 volumes of texts and 11 of plates over a period of 19 years, of the trials and tribulations it encountered at the hands of the authorities, but above all of the main characters associated with it, especially the lovable Diderot and the less than lovable Rousseau, but also d'Alembert (so much more arrogant than his charming portrait by Quentin de la Tour would suggest), the Chevalier de Jaucourt (three different figures are given on different pages for the number of articles he contributed), Helvétius, and many others.
Like the Encyclopédie itself, this book about it contains many digressions which are only thinly connected with the work itself, but as these are almost all entertaining, one cannot really complain. They are mostly about the lives of men and women who moved in the circle of the Encyclopaedists even if they were not direct contributors to the work. Blom does, however, dedicate no fewer than 12 pages to the story of Damien's attempt in 1757 on the life of Louis XV and the ghoulish details of his torture and execution - all on the specious grounds that, in reaction to this event, the Encyclopaedia was banned two years later: Blom makes it clear that there were far more immediate reasons for the Encyclopaedia being suppressed.
Each chapter has at its beginning one of the plates that illustrated the great work, and there is just the niggle that there is no key to the figures or to the little letters labelling the parts of the images.
The book was republished in 2005 under the title "Enlightening the World". You can google an excellent review by the American specialist Raymond Birn in H-France Review Vol.6, and this points out a rather alarming number of factual inaccuracies. Had I not read this, I would have given the book five stars.