The best books about the Enlightenment and the world it created

Who am I?

Andrew Curran is passionate about books and ideas related to the eighteenth century. His writing on the Enlightenment has appeared in The New York Times, The Guardian, Newsweek, Time Magazine, The Paris Review, El Païs, and The Wall Street Journal. Curran is also the author of three books and numerous scholarly articles on the French Enlightenment. He is currently writing a new multi-person biography that chronicles the birth of the concept of race for Other Press. Curran teaches at Wesleyan University in Middletown, CT, where he is a Professor of French and the William Armstrong Professor of the Humanities.

I wrote...

Diderot and the Art of Thinking Freely

By Andrew S. Curran,

Book cover of Diderot and the Art of Thinking Freely

What is my book about?

Diderot and the Art of Thinking Freely is a spirited biography of the life of France’s most famous Enlightenment-era atheist. For those people who have never heard of him, Diderot was the consummate Enlightenment polymath, the type of thinker who might write on ancient Chinese and Greek music first thing in the morning, study the mechanics of a cotton mill until noon, help purchase some paintings for Catherine the Great in the afternoon, and then return home and compose a play and a fifteen-page letter to his mistress before going to bed. This book chronicles Diderot’s amazing life, including his tormented relationship with Jean-Jacques Rousseau, his curious correspondence with Voltaire, his passionate affairs, and his often-iconoclastic stands on art, theater, morality, politics, and religion.

The books I picked & why

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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.

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.

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®.

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.

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.

5 book lists we think you will like!

Interested in the Age of Enlightenment, France, and torture?

5,888 authors have recommended their favorite books and what they love about them. Browse their picks for the best books about the Age of Enlightenment, France, and torture.

The Age Of Enlightenment Explore 77 books about the Age of Enlightenment
France Explore 587 books about France
Torture Explore 24 books about torture

And, 3 books we think you will enjoy!

We think you will like Les Enfants des Héros, Nan Domi, and The Making of Haiti if you like this list.