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A 1771 fantasy: burn a billion novels and outlaw torture.

By RUADHÁN MAC CORMAIC [Dublin Review of Books] – In L’an 2440 (The Year 2440), the best-selling and recently reissued utopian novel by Louis-Sébastien Mercier published in 1771, the narrator falls asleep after a discussion about the injustices of Parisian life and wakes up in the same city seven centuries later. Mercier, a prolific writer in the literary underground of the late ancien régime, embraced Enlightenment faith in progress; his utopia was not a distant land but a familiar city transformed by time into a version of his ideal society. It was an orderly place. Public spaces had been reshaped and the roads made wider, healthcare had improved, clothes were more comfortable and torture had been outlawed. There were no armies, taxes, prostitutes, aristocrats or beggars. Moderation and modesty had replaced abundance and conceit.

During his wander around twenty-fifth century Paris, the narrator comes upon the national library ‑ the Bibliothèque du roi under Louis XV ‑ expecting to find four great halls containing thousands of volumes. To his surprise however, he finds only a small cabinet containing a few books. What happened to the once vast and rich collection, he asks the staff. Was it destroyed by fire? “Yes, it was a fire,” they reply, “but we started it deliberately with our own hands.” Gone were fifty thousand dictionaries, a hundred thousand works of poetry, eighty thousand law volumes, 1.6 million travel books and a billion novels. Among those preserved were Homer, Plato, Shakespeare and Molière, but Herodotus and Cicero were purged, as, to the author’s evident approval, were half of Voltaire’s writings. This was the library’s solution to a problem that was considered pressing in Mercier’s day: the sense of being overwhelmed by information and unable to find what was relevant in a sea of ephemera. And so, by eliminating all that was deemed repetitive, puerile, miserable, frivolous, dangerous, gloomy or useless, the library had done society a great service. After all, “nothing leads the mind farther astray than bad books”, the librarian remarks.

More than two centuries after Mercier wrote his fantasy, the idea of fitting the whole of mankind’s documentary heritage into an improbably small space ‑ this time a desktop computer or a mobile phone handset ‑ has become a real prospect.

From a review of The Case for Books: Past, Present and Future, by Robert Darnton, continued at the Dublin Review of Books | More Chronicle & Notices.

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