What could be more boring, at the outset at least, than a 17th century dictionary with most of the entries missing? Well, this is the most fun and courageous book I've come across in quite a while. Bayle was born into French Calvinism (Huguenotism), converted to Catholicism and later, heresy upon heresy, reconverted. To escape persecution, he fled to Holland.
There are many parts of Bayle's work which are admired by both Enlightenment thinkers and the religious alike, and despite his later day reputation, Bayle's work was given as a prize to the head student in several seminaries across Europe. Bayle was also happy to publicly debate (in favour of religion) his opponents.
Popkin's marvellous translation bears 44 entries for his selection, which cover subjects like 'Manicheans', the 'heretical' sect that could, for a while at least, boast of a membership that included the future 'St.' Augustine. The entry on David is the most famous and controversial (and to my mind, the most deliciously irreverent.) There are also excellent entries on the likes of Spinoza.
The signal importance of this text is that it was not only very popular (reckoned to be the most popular text of it's time - by virtue of records concerning the contents of libraries in estates of the deceased), but it gives us a taste of what was being discussed in late 17th century Europe.
Needless to say, this book was banned, which, as usual, helped no end in it's distribution. It's a wonderful read. It is by turns charming, offbeat and ironic.
The layout of the text is quite interesting and consists for the most part of relatively short entries on a given subject, supported by fairly extensive footnotes (which is where most of the action is.) I can highly recommend this book to both the religious and atheistic alike (which is a rarity in itself.) Happy reading.