Interview with professor at Harvard University

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Kitabistan is an imaginary country where the key values are liberty, equality, and fraternity, which we learned from France.

We study the development of various countries around the world and provide Azerbaijani readers with books and research works to promote education and knowledge. But we don't stop there. In addition to translating books and publications, we have initiated a new project called "Kitabistan Talks." We have expanded our work to include interviewing experts in various fields. Our next interviewee is Robert Darnton, a professor at Harvard University and a member of the American Philosophical Society. He served as the director of the Harvard University Library from 2007 to 2016.

We present the interview to our readership.


- First of all, thank you for taking the time and for agreeing to the interview. You are a professor at Harvard University. In particular, you are a professor specializing in 18th-century France, France before and after the French Revolution, books, the dissemination of ideas, and the development of social consciousness, and you have written your books mainly around these topics. 14th of July - France's National Day is coming. I would like to talk with you today about these topics - the French Revolution, the importance of books and the impact of printing on the fate of the nations. My first question is, what is the importance of the French Revolution, which has been the main subject of your research for over 40 years, in world history and world political order?

- Well. That's a big question and I'm sure you know the famous remark by Mao Zedong. When he was asked that question, he said “it is too early to tell”. I don't actually agree with Mao Zedong, I don't think he's paying any attention (red. laughs). Of course, the French Revolution transformed the Western World and then the rest of the world. It was the great turning point. It's not exactly the beginning of a revolutionary tradition but it's the culmination of a democratic movement that was powerful everywhere in the Western world, even in small places like Geneva where there was a revolution in 1782. Certainly in the American colonies as you know. But the French Revolution brought it all together in a most dramatic way. And it said what it meant to do in the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen, in the legislation that really transformed the social conditions in France through changing the Constitution, the so-called abolition of feudalism which meant that peasants no longer had to pay feudal dues to their landlords or to the church. And above all, it created equality before the law. You know it's hard for us to imagine today how deeply the concept of inequality existed. Before the French Revolution, most people thought men and women were born unequal, especially women and that was a good thing. Because that is how God created the world and organized society in a hierarchical system. This is something that people took for granted, it was just the way they breathed. And to change that fundamental assumption about nature, human nature, male and female human nature was a major shift in world history. So, after the French Revolution, I believe that people's concept of themselves and especially aspiration to liberty became a fundamental fact of social and political organization. Now people always say the French Revolution became so violent etc. And many people are horrified by the violence. It was indeed terrible often, but you can't have such a profound social change without resistance. And the resistance itself was violent. So it's a complicated subject but I think that part of the importance of continuing to study the French Revolution is to appreciate the transformation that made the modern world.

- You are the author of several books on French history and revolution. Among them, I would like to highlight the books “The Business Enlightenment”, “The Devil in the Holy Water, or the Art of Slander from Louis XIV to Napoleon”, “Poetry and the Police: Communication Networks in Eighteenth-Century Paris”. In these works, you express that books, printing and ideas contribute to the development not only of a nation, but also of the whole world. Based on your research, can you tell what exactly the role of books was in the French Enlightenment?

- Well, we could begin with how you understand the French Enlightenment. If you read the works of all of the philosophe as the leaders of the Enlightenment were called, you do not find many ideas that did not exist already in the 17th century. It's true that some philosophers like Diderot began developing a new way of thinking but most of them notably Voltaire continued streams of thought that had existed earlier. So what makes the Enlightenment so different and so powerful? Diderot's definition in the article he wrote in the Encyclopédie about the Encyclopédie said, we must change the general way of thinking and that, I think, goes to the heart of the Enlightenment. Because it was an attempt to enlighten, to spread light, to diffuse ideas. It is not that the ideas themselves were so original but rather that there's now a commitment of a group of leading thinkers to spread the ideas and to change the general way of thinking in the public. That's why books matter. Because of course, they did it through books. Not only through books, but before the publication of De l'esprit des lois by Montesquieu in 1748 the advanced philosophical ideas did not appear in print. There were some exceptions of course. But most radical thought was exchanged in the forms of manuscript pamphlets and in discussions in small groups. But from 1748 until 1763 you got the explosion of all the great books of the Enlightenment and so a transformation from a period when the diffusion of ideas was restricted to a small group of intellectuals in Paris to a movement using books to spread the message everywhere. And that’s a big difference. It's a complicated process. A lot of it had to do with scandals, the burning of books by the public authorities which produced a tremendous shock and a lot of discussions. But the scandals helped in the diffusion process. So, much of my work has been to try to understand diffusion itself and that means getting inside the operations of publishing houses, discovering how many copies actually existed of key works like the Encyclopédie and then I discovered a whole stratum of publishing that was highly illegal and really seditious. These were not just the works of the philosophe like Voltaire but what the publishers called livres philosophiques or philosophical books. And they were often philosophical of an extreme kind. That is, atheistic and some challenged the authority of the king but also they contained a huge amount of writing about the scandal in the court and the bad behaviour of people in power. This whole literature was known as libelles or libels and I discovered in the papers of the publishers that this libel literature was very widespread and when you actually read it you understand why. If you take a work like The Private Life of Louis XV - it's four volumes, it gives you a complete view of French history from 1715 to 1774. It's full of information and of course scandal, the private life of the king which has to do with famous royal mistresses like Madame de Pompadour and Madame du Barry. People loved it. They were fascinated. They thought they were getting inside the corridors of power by reading this literature. So, in addition to the abstract treatises of philisophe you got another layer of literature that was truly attacking the church and the state. And this literature spread through a whole underground system which I was able to recreate. I could even find how the books were smuggled across the border from Switzerland into France. Smuggling was a major industry and I found that France was surrounded by what I called a fertile crescent of publishing houses that extended from Amsterdam into what is today Belgium, the Rhineland and then Switzerland. All of these publishing houses are producing this highly illegal literature and also pirating or reprinting less illegal literature and then having it smuggled into France. So, from 1750 on the French are experiencing something tremendously important which is the diffusion of literature on a very large scale that attacked the church and the state and that also questioned fundamental assumptions that many people have. In other words, I think that to understand the Enlightenment you need to understand the diffusion of books. And books are at the heart of everything. In fact, Voltaire once said “books are the most important force in history”.

- For decades you have researched both the Enlightenment in France and the history of the book. You have many books on the history of the book, its past, present and future, and the effects of books on historical processes. Do you think the book and printing maintain their importance in the 21st century?

- Well, it used to be that people were going around wringing their hands and saying, “Book is dead, libraries are obsolete and people don't read newspapers anymore, book shops have disappeared”. You don't hear that so much. I do think newspapers, at least in the US, are suffering. But we have seen an increase in the output of publishers. Publishers produce more books each year, than the year before in print and also online. We thought like 20 years ago that electronic books, e-books would replace the printed book and for about 2 years the sales of electronic books went way up but then it stabilized. And now we find that a lot of people read books online on Kindles or other devices but the printed book is flourishing more than ever. There are about 330,000 new titles produced in the United States every year and in addition to that, we've got about a million books that are self-published. Everyone is writing and publishing books. Many online, many printed. So, there's been an explosion of authorship, the growth of the traditional book. I think everyone is now convinced that this invention, the codex which goes back to the first century after Christ, is one of the greatest inventions ever.  It's the invention of a book that you read by turning pages instead of unscrolling. And the experience of turning pages, of coming through a book, of moving backwards and forwards in a text is an extraordinary experience that still produces interest and delight in readers. So, the printed codex, printing now that began of course, with Guttenberg in the West, is just a wonderful invention that has a great staying power. So, I think it's quite wrong to say that book is dead. Book is alive but what's happened is, in addition to the printed codex, we have electronic books, we have electronic messages of all kinds and the whole environment surrounding the traditional book has become more complex and richer. In fact, you could argue that in the history of technology, one innovation does not displace another. The radio did not kill the newspaper and television did not kill the radio and the internet did not kill television. Now, our environment contains more means of diffusion and that makes for a richer general experience. Right, there are lots of problems. I know. So, I don't want to sound too optimistic. But I do think that the history of the book demonstrated that the book itself is absolutely central to our civilization. And when I say ours, I mean world civilization. I'm citing examples from the United States but I could cite others from Germany and France and well I don't know too well about Azerbaijan but I hope that your publishing industry is flourishing too.

- A considerable share of your research work has been dedicated to French 18th-century forbidden literature. Thanks to your research, we have a pretty broad idea of that literature which was secretly read by most Frenchmen. Has the literature banned in France reduced the number of readers? 

- I don't think it did. On the contrary, when the book is banned it's banned through a process. The parliament of Paris declares it illegal, the King's Council withdraws its privilege and it's burned. The burning takes place at the foot of a staircase of the main Court in Paris. It is called Palace de Justice. It is in the heart of Paris. Nothing was better for the sales of the book than burning the book in the middle of the city where people could come and watch. It was the best publicity possible. And Diderot said that, as soon as printers hear that a book is burned they said, "Great, let's start setting type for the next edition". So, the attempt to repress literature failed. And in fact, it failed so obviously that by 1750 the director of the book trade, a man called Lamoignon de Malesherbes, realized that the economic cost was tremendous because these books were being published outside of France and then smuggled and transported inside. And the foreign publishers of French books are making a lot of money, money that could go to French publishers. So, he opened a loophole, a kind of provision in the rules for regulating the book trade called permission tacite or tacit permissions. And that meant books that would not get the approval of the state but did not really attack the state or the church strongly would be permitted. And from that time, this is 1750 to 1763, when de Malesherbes was in charge of the book trade, all kinds of books now began to circulate. Because he realized it was counterproductive to simply ban. But I would go further than that because what I have found in my own research in the papers of publishers and also in the archives of the state is that the piracy trade developed and prospered to an amazing degree so that by 1770 more than half of the books available on the marketplace of France were pirated. By that I mean they were reprinted by publishing houses outside of France and sold in France. So, piracy was enormously important, at least as important as the original publishing trade. And that meant now is the beginning of a time when books are reaching a general public. It's only in the 19th century that the French had what is called a Grand Public when everyone reads books. In the 18th century still, only the middle classes and the upper classes were reading them, not peasants. Well, some workers, artisans. But still, it's a general public that is developing a passion for reading and is being satisfied by pirate publishers outside of France. So, we've moved into a new era in which the book is a democratic force. It's the democratization of access to culture. And the attempt to ban books, to stop books, to confiscate them at the borders of France failed and books were everywhere.

- How do you think, what were the consequences of banning literature?

- Well, as I said it made people more eager to read this literature. So it was counterproductive. I'm not saying that everyone was converted to the ideas of Voltaire, Montesquieu and Rousseau. But everyone in this general public actually knew of the philosophers. They became celebrities. When Voltaire, who had to live outside of France on the border between France and Geneva, when he was permitted to come back in his very last days in 1778 all of Paris celebrated him. He was a spectacular star. And everyone knew about Rousseau. The philosophes became public figures. And this I think mattered tremendously because a lot of people who didn't actually read the books admired the personalities. And the cult of the philosophe became crucial I think in transforming the general outlook of the public

- You have spent many years studying how the Old Regime was overthrown by the French Revolution. You were in East Germany during the fall of the Berlin Wall. And you published the book called "Berlin Journal" in which you shared your impressions about that period. As a historian, what do you think were the effects of German literature on the fall of the Berlin Wall?

- Well, it can be measured in two ways. One concerns the East German books that mattered and the other the West German books that mattered. Of course, the totalitarian regime in East Germany attempted to keep out Western literature but it didn't succeed very well. So, there was underground literature of Western books that circulated in East Germany. Despite the fact that the East German state forbade books that we think everyone should read as part of modern culture - Freud, Kafka, Nietzsche - these were all not allowed. But of course, people were curious about modern culture and they got a great many books secretly from the West. But I also studied the books that were produced within East Germany itself. I knew some writers and publishers from East Germany. And one friend of mine said, "You've studied censorship in 18th-century France. Would you like to meet some censors, real censors?" And I thought, oh yes absolutely. To talk with a censor in the flesh would be fascinating. Well, it's a long story. One thing led to another but I found myself actually discussing literature with two censors in their offices in East Berlin shortly after the fall of the Wall. They had never seen an American before. I was some kind of strange animal. And furthermore, they've never set foot in Western Berlin. They lived in a closed-off world. So we had a fascinating conversation in which they tried to explain how they did their job. Because I was not trying to accuse them of being wicked and suppressing liberty, I just wanted to understand what they did. This conversation led to large-scale research on my part. I went to the papers of the Communist Party. I just walked into the headquarters there because the wall had fallen, the Communist Party itself had fallen apart, and the state no longer existed. But all of the bureaucrats were still there. So I could walk into the headquarters of the Communist Party and say "I would like to see your archives please". They didn't know what to do with me. So, they said okay. And I spent a lot of time going back year after year, studying in the archives how censorship functioned and also trying to see whether what I learned in the conversation with the censors coincided with the material I could find. What I found in general was certain authors - you probably would not know their names but Volker Braun is a good example, - had followings in the East German public. And these authors didn't want to break with the regime, they didn't want to escape to the West, they believed in socialism but they thought that the country had become ossified under the control of these ancient figures in the Communist Party. And so they pushed things and they became satirical, they made fun of the bureaucrats and the state control of things. You got a kind of contestatory literature developed in East Germany which to a certain extent the censors permitted. They were always getting in trouble. There was one scandal after another but you could feel the rise of a kind of public and certainly, authors who challenged the monopoly of power in East Germany. Maybe that answer is too long but my point is that having studied censorship and the book trade in 18th century France when I was in Berlin and witnessed the fall of the wall and spent a year following events I was able to compare the present and how the state tried to control literature in 1989 with France before 1789. And I found certain parallels that I think very revealing about the importance of books and politics in general.

- Let’s talk about Harvard University Library. You were the director of the Harvard University Library from 2007-2016. Harvard University Library is considered one of the largest libraries in the world. We want you to share your experience of being the head of one of the world's largest libraries with our readers.

- Well, it was an enormous responsibility. Harvard actually has 73 libraries. It's a whole library system. Some are located in the law school, some in the business school, and some in the medical school. The main library is in the Faculty of Arts and Sciences at the center of the campus. When I became director there were 1,200 full-time employees. An enormous number of people maintaining the library, purchasing books, cataloging books, and preserving books. It was a gigantic operation and the largest University Library in the world. As a lover of books and a student of the history of books, I felt tremendous responsibility. The Harvard Library dates from 1638 to the and it owes its existence to a man called John Harvard. We know very little about him but he had come to the colony of Massachusetts Bay with books, 500 books. He died suddenly and left all these books to this tiny academy that had been created two years earlier, in 1636. So, suddenly this academy which didn't even have a name had the largest library in North America and it changed its name in honor of the donor to Harvard. So, what I'm saying is Harvard grew up around its library. The library was the heart of the college and the University. And yet it was restricted of course, to the students and faculty at Harvard. When I became director, I thought my main mission was to open up this great library to the rest of the country and to the rest of the world. Now we couldn't simply let people come in because the library buildings would be flooded with readers. And of course, the idea was to digitize books and make them available. So, we did this. We digitized books on a gigantic scale but also manuscripts. Because we had the largest manuscript collection about life in colonies from 1620 to the American Revolution. We digitized those too. And made them available free of charge. We also passed a resolution in the debate within the faculty that all new research by faculty members should be deposited in a digital repository and made available free of charge. So the whole idea was to open up the library and to use it as part of what we hope would become a national digital library. Well, that was also the origin of the digital public library of America that we created a few years later. So that was my understanding, my vision. It was more to it than that. It was very complicated but basically, I believe in the democratization of access to culture. It sounds fine. You know I don't want it to come out like a slogan because it's a complicated process. There are obstacles in its way such as the commercialization of access to knowledge. And I think that's at the heart of contemporary cultural life. There are great forces towards monopolies and opposing forces towards open access. For my part, I'm an open-access advocate.

- In November, your new book "The Revolutionary Temper. Paris 1748-1789" will be published. What makes your new book different from your other books?

- I'm dealing with a very big question "How did the French Revolution come about?" It's probably a question that produced more scholarship than any other (red.laughs). So, I am one of the hundreds and hundreds of scholars who have tried to understand this fundamental change. In this book called "The Revolutionary Temper" which will be published in November of this year just for the short time from now, I try to synthesize all of the research I've done over the last 50 years and research by other people. The result is I think a different view of how the French Revolution happened. It's not a straight argument about linear causality. I don't think there was one single cause. Many things went into the coming of the French Revolution of course. But the ingredient that I've stressed and that I don't think was adequately recognized by previous historians is information. We say that we live in an Information Society as if other societies didn't have information. I believe that every society is an information society, each according to the available media at its time. So I restricted my book to Paris. But I spent years and years studying the way information flowed in Paris, what were the sources of news for example. I spent the first part of the book describing how that early Information Society actually functioned. A lot of the media - I am sure there were books - but there was gossip, there were songs. It turns out songs were tremendously important for spreading information. There were groups of people who got together in the special part of Paris, under a tree called the Tree of Cracow in the garden of Palais-Royal, in certain benches in the Luxembourg Gardens and in the Tuileries Garden. Cafe talk was everywhere. And people also took the information through their eyes when they looked at the performance of public ceremonies. There were ceremonies all the time and usually, they were kinds of parades which are organized according to the status or the importance of certain groups. Well, you go to watch a parade and frequently the parades broke down. There were failures, people were killed because they were trampled when violence broke out. So, there was a sense of  public affairs that is transmitted orally, by manuscript, underground manuscript newsletters and by print. And all of these media came together to communicate information about events. Now my argument is that events do not come naked into the world. They come clothed in attitudes, values, expectations, memories of the past, hopes for the future, and emotions of all kinds. So my argument is that we need to know not only what happened but how people perceived happenings. The book, therefore, is a study of a collective perception of events as they occurred during the 40 years before the French Revolution. In that respect, I think a new kind of argument which stresses information itself as the crucial ingredient. And since we're today all of us thinking about information, false news, the spread of certain media, etc, I think that can sharpen our awareness of what was a crucial factor in the past.

- Finally, I would like to ask you our traditional question. What book would you recommend our readers to read?

- Oh, well. There are just endless books. You know it's only recently that I read or reread War and Peace. And I just loved it more than ever. It's a very long book but I finished, wishing it were still longer. Books like that are enormously important for opening up your understanding of things. I also think that it would be interesting to re-read some of the books of the Enlightenment with this modern perspective about information and how information spreads. So, if I have to recommend one book from 18th century France I think it would be Rameau's Nephew by Diderot which is funny, fascinating, challenging because the conclusion is not obvious. So the reader has to think his or her way through. So, you know I'm thinking of famous great books in the past, well War and Peace is obvious, but I think Diderot deserves rereading because he speaks more to our modern sensitivity than someone like Voltaire. So, yes, go to Rameau's Nephew or Jacques le Fataliste and you will have a lot of fun and you will be stimulated to question many of your attitudes.

- Thank you very much for answering the questions.

- Thank you very much for asking and for the interview.

Malak Hajiyeva