I do believe there are good or bad reasons to buy an old book. And God forgive, I did buy one for the wrong reason the other day. I confess it: I wasn’t interested in its contents at all—but in its physical appearance. Do I feel sorry? No, Sir.
This book doesn’t come in a regular binding. As a matter of fact, it has remained in its original state, just as sold by booksellers back in 1786. Binding books was binders’ exclusive privilege. To make their merchandise attractive anyway, booksellers covered their raw and yet uncut copies with temporary paper cover. These gorgeous “papiers dominotés” (or decorative papers) were made of thick paper decorated with colourful patterns. My own happens to be fascinating. It features sinusoidal curves that cut each other to create a regular pattern adorned with yellow and red flowers lay over a blue background. I got in touch with English bookseller and founder of the Weloveendpapers FB page, Simon Beattie. He was unable to find an exact match in his archives. “But it was evidently a popular pattern,” he adds, “as there are at least two other similar patterns recorded in André Jammes’ Papier Dominotés (Editions des cendres, 2010).” The book reproduces two papiers dominotés that are almost identical indeed. The margin of one of them features the printer’s name, Husquier. André Jammes writes: This model was quite successful. (...) There are five or six variants that have remained anonymous. (...) This model probably comes from Orléans, France.” The margin on my copy features no name but a small fresco of blue flower stems. What secret beauty lies in these blurry outlines, I can feel, but couldn’t tell.
What is left to do with a book, if you don’t read it? You contemplate it—once, twice... And then? The emptiness of my vanity almost suffocated me, so I opened the book. It is entitled Mémoires Secrets pour servir à l’histoire de la République des Lettres... (London, 1786), and was later credited to Jean-Baptiste Boyer, Marquis d’Argens. It is a sort of day-to-day gazette of the Republic of Letters—and guess what? It is very exciting! Some entries remind me of d’Argenson’s secret police reports from the late 17th century. “August 19, 1768: We’ve talked about the torments lately inflicted to several victims. The criminals belonged to a gang specialized in stealing sacred vessels. Upon finding out that her son was part of this gang, a mother was brave enough to stab him to death in his sleep, thus saving him from facing the consequences of his deeds.” Some might argue that this is taking motherhood a little bit too far...
On September 24, there was a stampede in the church of Saint-Jacques, in Paris. “A poor fellow started to act like a frenetic, and then like an enraged mad man. Some men around drew their swords and created panic.” People rushed through the gate only to “realize that they had been robbed of their watch, snuffbox and jewelleries.” The police held the alleged mad man and three of his accomplices. “They admitted it was an old tricksters’ ploy that misery had forced them to re-enact.” What the Republic of Letters has to do with that, I couldn’t tell.
Theatre is the main topic of this volume. Wasn’t it the world of people of ‘low morality’; actresses, often mistresses, sometimes courtesans, fishing men of quality; artists, who were thieves as well; writers or political polemists. No wonder the police, who were in charge of public morality, were interested in them. In August 1768, a daring author submitted “an erotic poem of the most ignominious nature (read homosexual)” to the annual contest of the Académie française. “The secretary, M. Duclos, sent him a letter of reprimand, adding that the Académie was kind enough not to denounce him to the police.” In those times, you could get killed for writing the wrong book. Yet, it was the heyday of the Lumières; but even Voltaire, the most famous philosopher of all, was living far from Paris. He feared for his freedom. “France is the country that honours the less the great poet, who is the pride and honour of his country and Europe on a whole. (...) The Palatine has just issued a medal engraved with his head, to reward “the man who has taken off the world’s blindfolds.” He was so important at the end of his life that his name is here quoted at almost every page. “People are so fond at anything that comes from his feather that they even buy his lowest letters.” Later in the book, Voltaire is also described as an irritating, self-obsessed man, and a philosophical intriguer—which seems fair as well.
At the end of the day, the various entries about travels, theatre, secret pamphlets, sexual intrigues and religion, draw some sinusoidal curves that cross each other and form a fascinating pattern, showing the true (and captivating) colours of the 18th century. As Juvenal (almost) said, contents sana in papier dominoté sano.