Montesquieu

Usbek to ***


There is a spe­cies of books that we do not know in Persia, and which seem to me much in fashion here : it is the news­pa­pers. Indolence feels flat­te­red as it reads them ; it is thril­ling to be able to scan thirty volu­mes in fif­teen minu­tes.1

In most books, the author has not fini­shed the usual for­ma­li­ties before the rea­ders are exhaus­ted ; he makes them enter half-dead into a sub­ject drow­ned amidst a sea of words. One author wants to immor­ta­lize him­self with an duo­de­cimo, ano­ther by a quarto, ano­ther, who has more refi­ned incli­na­tions, has in mind a folio, and must extend his mate­rial pro­por­tio­na­tely – which he does piti­lessly, coun­ting for nothing the strug­gle of the poor rea­der, who toils to reduce what the author took such pains to amplify.

I do not know, ***, what merit there is in wri­ting such works ; I would do it too if I wan­ted to ruin my health, and a book­sel­ler.

The great mis­take of the jour­na­lists is that the dis­cuss only new books, as if truth were ever new.2 It seems to me that until a man has read all the old books, he has no rea­son to pre­fer the new ones.

But when they impose on them­sel­ves the rule of dis­cus­sing only works still warm from the forge, they also impose ano­ther rule, which is to be very boring. They care­fully avoid cri­ti­ci­zing the books from which they give extracts, wha­te­ver rea­son they may have ; and indeed what man is bold enough to want to make him­self ten or twelve ene­mies every month ?

Most authors are like poets who will put up with a round of blows without com­plaint, but who, not sen­si­tive about their shoul­ders, are so sen­si­tive about their works that they are una­ble to bear the sligh­test cri­ti­cism. So one must be very sure not to attack them in such a deli­cate place, and the jour­na­lists know it well ; the­re­fore they do just the oppo­site : they first praise the mate­rial that is trea­ted, the first pla­ti­tude ; then they go on to praise the author : for­ced praise, for they are up against peo­ple who are still exer­ci­sing, quite ready to make sure they have their way, and to strike down a pre­sump­tuous jour­na­list with their pens.

Paris this 5th day of the moon of Zilcadé 1718

The Dictionnaire des journaux edited by Jean Sgard (1991) counts twenty-four literary magazines in 1700 and forty-eight in 1725 (vol. II, p. 1133). The principle of most of them was to review books and provide substantial extracts as soon as possible after their publication.

Usbek’s intellectual conservatism goes hand in hand with the image of a changeless Persia, contrasting with a Europe subject to change, as the question of fashion has already illustrated (letter 96).