Robert Darnton and Zhang Chi: a conversation

‘With the exceptions of economics and demography, I don’t think social-science methods can be used to engineer historical research. In place of methodological prescriptions, I would invoke two remarks by historians I admire. Marc Bloch said (I am speaking from memory and may get the words slightly wrong): ‘The historian is like the ogre of the fairy tale; where he smells man, he finds his prey.’ And my friend and colleague, the late Carl Schorske, used to say: ‘Man is a meaning-making animal.’ I think the need for meaning is as fundamental for humans as food and drink’ : Robert Darnton

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Robert Darnton is Professor Emeritus and University Librarian at Harvard University. He is well known as a leader in the field of cultural history and history of books. Darnton’s works have profoundly changed historians’ understanding of the world of print and communication in eighteenth-century France. On 17 March 2022, he will give a lecture in the Weston Library, Oxford. Please keep an eye on our website for further information.

From 13-22 October 2019, being invited by Zhang Chi (associate professor in the History Department of Zhejiang University, China), Darnton visited Zhejiang University and gave three lectures. Our conversation began with a discussion of Darnton’s recollections of his academic career after nearly half a century of research of the archives of the Société typographique de Neuchâtel.

Zhang Chi: You’ve been into the history of books ever since the 1970s. I suppose it was better to say that it selected you, than that you chose it. We all are familiar with that story: you got in touch with the library in Neuchâtel to get materials on Brissot, and then there were 50,000 letters. You dug into it the way a journalist would do with a murder case. As an American, why did you choose to study French history? What were things like in the field of the history of books when you first got in?

Robert Darnton: First, I would like to express my gratitude for the opportunity to address Chinese readers. During my recent visit to Zhejiang University I was greatly impressed not only by the hospitality I received but also by my hosts’ knowledge of Western history. I realized, too, how much I had to learn about the East. I hope this dialogue will contribute at least in a small way to communication between our two sides of the globe. I have grouped the questions together and omitted a few of them to make my answers more coherent.

As I get older, I have an increasing appreciation of contingency. An epidemic unexpectedly breaks out in a remote city, and the world economy collapses. Events like the American invasion of Iraq have disastrous, unintended consequences. Individuals change the course of history – for better (Nelson Mandela) or worse (Donald Trump). History was not supposed to happen that way, according to the Annales School. When I took a deep dive into Annales history in the early 1970s, I absorbed a view of history as long-term structural change uncovered by statistics – ‘histoire sérielle’, as François Furet called it. 

Furet introduced me to the historians working with him on Livre et société in 1972. Rather than concentrating on great books by famous writers, they used statistical analysis to detect century-long trends. The Enlightenment appeared implicitly as part of a shift away from religious and toward secular subjects across many decades and on a gigantic scale. A new discipline, histoire du livre, promised to reveal general patterns of culture – profound tendencies comparable to what the Annalistes had discovered in studying economic, demographic, and social history….

Declaration of the Rights of Woman, 1791