The little blue books that popularized French literature

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The Société Générale de Troyes on the Place du Maréchal Foch. Fab5669/(CC BY-SA 4.0)

It doesn’t matter where you are in the world, on any given morning commute, you’re likely to see a book. Whether that book is electronic and read on a screen, or a more traditional three-dimensional version at your fingertips, the fact remains: people like to read on the go. In 2018, it’s pretty easy to compress text into an endless scroll of a PDF and attach it to an email, which is just as digital and incredibly fast. But in the 17th century, sharing a piece of literature was exclusively tactile and decidedly slower.

Troyes is a city in northeastern France located on the Seine in Champagne. It is known to be a main stop on the old Roman road By Agrippaand the site where the standard measure of gold evolved. He is also responsible for the mass production of literature in France.

A blue book cover, generated from paper once used to wrap sugar.
A blue book cover, generated from paper once used to wrap sugar. Public domain

In 1602, the brothers Jean and Nicolas Oudot were printers in Troyes, concerned about sustainable development. Using recycled paper from books already published, the innovative printers created low-quality, travel-size brochures, protected by used sugarloaf covers the color of faded denim. These updated editions of classic texts (think fun-sized SparkNotes) that this small-format print model spawned were so named blue books (blue books). The blue books, and more broadly Blue bookcase (blue library), were made possible thanks to the association of the Oudot brothers with the family of Claude Garnier, himself a printer of popular literature during the Renaissance, mainly for the King of France.

Certainly, these blue books were not beacons of perfection. They were littered with typos and misaligned margins, and had a reputation for being very (read: grossly) abbreviated versions of their parent text, but the possibilities they contained were remarkable nonetheless. The Oudot brothers diluted their literature for a much wider (and less literate) audience, and it wasn’t long before simplified volumes became relatively common. Because they were cheap to make, they were cheap to buy, thus increasing the lower class’s access to books. In a 1979 study, American historian Elizabeth Eisenstein claimed that the impression was “the unknown revolutionof the Renaissance, in part due to the Blue Library’s role in positioning print as an important part of popular culture.

Inside a popular blue book text.
Inside a popular blue book text. Public domain

The tiny texts, measuring 12 by 7 centimeters (4.7 by 2.8 inches), were also easy to carry, giving rise to our term “pocket book”. Their miniature size facilitating their transport, the blue books, small and light, became a perfect vehicle for the popularization of the mass media. The book peddlers created an extensive distribution network across France by selling the little books at various fairs and markets. Printers used peddling, this system of literary circulation, to distribute their inexpensive abridged editions of popular texts in rural areas of Europe in particular, since bookstores were found exclusively in large cities. In this way, the Blue Books greatly increased the literacy of working-class populations. Although the Oudot brothers initially focused on reprinting and reusing local literature, their blue book format caught on in other French towns – proving that readers beyond Troyes, including those in urban environments with the capital to buy classic works, were devoted to the new blue library. (Same noble women Read the!)

The Greater Troyes Media Library.
The Greater Troyes Media Library. Superjuju10/(CC BY-SA 4.0)

Over the years and the success of blue books, the blue library has become a real family affair. The sons of Jean and Nicolas, four between them, led the production of blue books at the end of the 17th century. The family’s eventual literary footprint in Paris, cemented by its publication of satire, religious literature, cookbooks, and almanacs in large quantities, nearly secured them a printing monopoly on popular French works. But in 1760, the Oudots finally ceased their activities, new legislation infringing the right to reprint literature.

Today, the Grand Troyes Media Library specific to Troyes—Greater Troyes media library— hold on 2,000 volumes of those 17th century blue books. Printing is not dead after all.

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