The best books about the Enlightenment and the world it created

The Books I Picked & Why

At Home With The Marquis De Sade

By Francine Du Plessix Gray

Book cover of At Home With The Marquis De Sade

Why this book?

The Marquis de Sade (1740-1814) is one of those characters that you loathe, but cannot help but find fascinating. By all standards, this deviant aristocrat was a gentleman in name only. Yet his remarkable life (32 years of it spent in prison) and amoral philosophizing provide the grist for a great biography under the pen of Gray. Readers will find many of de Sade’s horrific exploits here, yet this book also explores his relationship with the two most important women in his life: his beloved wife, who indulged him for decades, and his hated mother-in-law, whom he envisioned flaying alive before throwing her “into a vat of vinegar.” To a large degree, Marquis’s life and philosophy were an intentionally extreme version of the Enlightenment’s emancipation of the individual. A great window into the dark side of the Enlightenment.

When you buy a book we may earn a small commission.

Citizens: A Chronicle of the French Revolution

By Simon Schama

Book cover of Citizens: A Chronicle of the French Revolution

Why this book?

There are so many good books on the Enlightenment era, but my favorite ones have tended to deal with events in France. Among my preferred reads is Simon Schama’s Citizens, which I first breezed through in graduate school when it appeared in 1998. Citizens not only provides stunning, jaw-dropping insight into the events of the revolution, it confers an unforgettable texture to the main characters. (The images I have of Danton and Robespierre still come from the pages of this book, despite having read many other works on the same subject.) In recent years some critics have taken the author to task for being “against” the revolution. This still doesn’t bother me a bit. Regardless of the supposed politics or leaning of the author, this is an extraordinary book.

When you buy a book we may earn a small commission.

Inventing Human Rights: A History

By Lynn Hunt

Book cover of Inventing Human Rights: A History

Why this book?

This book sits on my bookcase right next to Jean Starobinski’s wonderful The Invention of Liberty. Both books promise an analysis of the rise of a specific concept – human rights and liberty – during an era where classical liberalism as we know it was taking shape. What I love about Hunt’s book is that she not only puts a tracer on the notion of human rights in political discourse; she tells a story of how human rights arose from a set of psychological and epistemological forces that coalesced during the eighteenth century (often reflected in the novel and art). Few intellectual history books are this artfully crafted. Hunt is also a great writer who can make complicated concepts go down like kool-aid®.

When you buy a book we may earn a small commission.

Avengers of the New World: The Story of the Haitian Revolution

By Laurent Dubois

Book cover of Avengers of the New World: The Story of the Haitian Revolution

Why this book?

Dubois is both a great scholar and a wonderful storyteller. His Avengers brings alive the complicated and fraught history of the Haitian revolutionaries who brought an end to the French colony known as Saint-Domingue. I remember thinking that this was a courageous book when it came out and I still think it is. Rather than providing an unambiguously hagiographic assessment of the revolution’s most famous revolutionary and military leader – Toussaint Louverture – Dubois chronicles the shifting alliances and seeming incongruities of the era and its historical figures. One of the great things about this book is that it allows us to understand the curious interplay of race and class in colonial societies. This book is one of the more dog-eared volumes in my library and yet, each time I pick it up, I am amazed by the writing.

When you buy a book we may earn a small commission.

How Paris Became Paris: The Invention of the Modern City

By Joan DeJean

Book cover of How Paris Became Paris: The Invention of the Modern City

Why this book?

As is the case in many great European cities, most neighborhoods in Paris have accumulated layers and layers of famous inhabitants, momentous events, and deathbed scenes, the most notable of which have earned a historical marker or plaque. At first glance, the city’s buildings and neighborhoods appear timeless, yet much of Paris is actually a palimpsest, a huge manuscript whose neighborhoods have been scraped to the ground and rebuilt time and time again. One of my favorite things in life (quite literally) is walking through the streets of the French capital, and I often find myself thinking of How Paris became Paris while doing so. Joan DeJean is a great writer and provides a narrative of the birth the Paris that we know (or think we know) that is as instructive as it is riveting. The book’s chapters correspond generally to some of the city’s best-known spaces, spaces (such as the old so-called Pont Neuf) that will never be the same for you after you have read the book.

When you buy a book we may earn a small commission.

Closely Related Book Lists

Distantly Related Book Lists