Me: So, today I have to write my essay about Voltaire.
My Sweetie: Poor Voltaire.
Me: Ah, you feel sorry for Voltaire and not for me...?
My Sweetie: Well, everyone is going to say he wrote a very bad book, and it's probably true...
My husband objected to the Nonbelieving Literati's selection of Zadig as soon as I told him about it.
Because -- said he -- the context and influence are what's interesting, not the text itself. Reading Voltaire today is like people three centuries from now reading a popular columnist from this year's New York Times. High School kids in France study Zadig in the context of a few semesters' worth of study about its time period and influence.
(He then went on to suggest that the Nonbelieving Literati should be reading Joyce and Melville. That was where I parted ways with my hopelessly highbrow-lit husband. If there's a list of authors I'm not reading for any damned book club, #1 would be Joyce and #2 would be Melville.)
But I agreed with my husband about Voltaire's place in history firing the imagination. A few months ago, I read a couple of fantastic books by Robert Darnton about the culture and literature of the time:
The Great Cat Massacre: And Other Episodes in French Cultural History and The Forbidden Best-Sellers of Pre-Revolutionary France.
Working from an amazing array of primary sources, Darnton explores the culture and attitudes of all the different segments of the population of enlightenment France, from illiterate peasants to artisans to the "bourgeois" to the nobility. A newly-abundant information technology -- printed books -- was spreading new ideas far and wide. Books that the church or the state found threatening were at once illegal and quite popular. Voltaire was one of the usual suspects. Illegal books (as a category) were called "philosophical" by the publishing industry (as well as by the authorities) even though this genre included books about politics (especially the king's personal life) and smut/erotica in addition to books on more obviously philosophical subjects like deism and atheism.
Naturally I see a parallel with the Internet today. It may just be that I see blogging everywhere (being obsessed with it and all), but please hear me out.
Printed books are a form of one-way communication -- like television -- from knowledge producers to knowledge consumers. There's one big difference, however: less is more. The less your infotainment consumes of your brain's attention, the more your brain has to work on its own in response. Caleb Crain argues this in The Twilight of Reading: "It makes you smarter because it leaves more of your brain alone." Darnton's research illustrates this in his chapter analyzing police records of (spying on) nightly conversations taking place in taverns around town. Unlike television today which can consume all of your brain's leisure time without your brain ever having the strain of producing a single thought of its own, in those days you could only read books for so long, and then the next natural step is to go down to the pub and discuss them.
And so with the Internet today. We're bringing back not only written communication but also a two-way flow of ideas (as I explained in Think for yourself!). Blog and forum space form a beautiful silicon web of conversation. The division between idea producers and idea consumers is blurred to the point of being completely erased. No one article or post is ever the final word on any subject -- the most interesting ones get linked into a network of hundreds and thousands of related but contrasting perspectives.
Are we ushering in a new "enlightenment" in the tradition of Voltaire et al? Perhaps. Hopefully it will be one that doesn't end quite so badly...
p.s. I really did read Zadig (in French, no less -- be impressed! ;^) ), and I'll add my thoughts on the text itself in my comments on the posts of my fellow Nonbelieving Literati.