Book Review: The Philosopher’s Kiss

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It’s day three of my first cold of the academic year. Here’s hoping it’ll be the last, but a college campus is, among many other things, a small den of contagion. It seemed that this year the students starting sneezing, coughing and sniffling much earlier than usual, but who knows? Would it be odd to handle the papers they turn in with plastic gloves?

The cold and the backlog of grading have taken their toll on my blog. No Madison Monday, no Top Ten Tuesday. But as I lie here on my couch debating whether I’ll be able to summon enough energy to teach the one class I have today, I figured I could at least review the one book I finished this week.

The Philosopher’s Kiss by Peter Prange is one of the books that came in the big happy box of ARC’s from Emily at As the Crowe Flies (And Reads!). A friend borrowed it to read and had only so-so reviews. I’ve been on something of a fantasy tear, and really enjoying it (thanks, phaedosia at Book Hearth for the Garth Nix recommendation…I loved Sabriel). But having run out of fantasy, I decided to try something that didn’t look too terribly weighty, and so picked up The Philosopher’s Kiss.

This is the kind of book it’s okay to take your time with. I appreciate one of those every now and then. The chapters are very, very short. Usually about 2 and a half pages each. This makes it perfect for reading before bed, when you’re not sure how much you can commit to before you fall asleep.

The story takes place in 18th century France and focuses on the story of Denis Diderot and his lover, Sophie Volland. Both Diderot and Volland were real people, and there’s a book of the collected letters from Diderot to Volland from Diderot to Volland. Diderot, a philosopher and writer, embarks on his life’s work, writing the great Encyclopedia, which will collect all human knowledge of the time in one set of volumes. All human knowledge based on reason and intellect, which makes the French monarchy and the Catholic church more than a little nervous. Sophie is the heroine of this story, and I appreciate Prange’s attempt to tell a historical story from the viewpoint of a woman.

This is historical fiction, and at the end of the book, Prange provides a timeline which allows you to see how many of the events in the book were real events. You discover that he followed history pretty closely, which is surprising, because the book is such an easy, pleasant read. It reads like a very engaging story, rather than the sometimes heavy-handed-ness of other historical fiction, which can get bogged down in the tyranny of the Facts. I wasn’t particularly interested in this time period, didn’t really know anything about it, and still found the story very engaging.

This is not a novel of ideas. My husband is currently reading a novel of ideas, and it’s making him crazy. A novel of ideas is a hard thing to carry off. I think of the Regeneration Trilogy by Pat Barker as a novel of ideas, but a very good one. It seems the key is to not let the ideas overtake the characters and the story. In The Philosopher’s Kiss, the ideas are what drive the story, but they’re so well-integrated that you can kind of miss them. I found I didn’t really mind that much in the end.

Diderot’s tree of knowledge

An interesting thing about the Encyclopedia. Diderot and his many co-authors (including Montesquieu, Voltaire, and Rousseau) set out a new tree of knowledge, in opposition to the Church’s tree. The previous tree of knowledge gave theology a central place. The new tree gave theology a small branch. But central in Diderot’s new tree were the natural sciences and the mechanical arts. The Encylopedia included lots of information about how to make things. A conversation with a friend about a book she read, Shop Class as Soulcraft, made me think of the ways in which we have de-valued the knowledge of how to make things in our society. Maybe this is a reflection of the fact that we’re living in the Information Age. But personally (and maybe this is because I’ve read one too many post-apocalyptic novels), I’m learning to make as many things as possible so that my skills will be valuable when the empire comes crashing down around our heads and suddenly being able to knit a sweater becomes important again.

When my head clears and I’m able to smell once again, look for my post about the new Irish session night at The Electric Lady here in Madison.

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