The Age of Conversation was an incredible book, packed with dozens of unique characters and the stories of how they came together. It was not intended to be light reading, and is full of citations and assumes a great deal of background knowledge. I had to set it down for a while; I started reading it in 2019 and only finished it now late in 2020. Another potential source of difficulty is that it is in translation from Italian, and written about French society, so there is much that could have been lost along the way. But I found it fully worth it. I have long been fascinated by salonnieres of salons or women in similar positions, such as geisha in hanamachi in Japan or madams in Storyville in New Orleans. I found connections between the women who ran the salons and those who attended them to be especially interesting; a woman who frequented one salon for years would later presiding over her own. What entertained those present varied greatly through the years, from playing word games to truly theatrical performance, or actively composing poetry or reading aloud letters some had received.
I’d recommend this book to anyone interested in the development of French culture, or what laid the foundations of the Enlightenment. While not for the faint of heart, it is richly rewarding to one who does make it all the way through. The different strands running through the book offer unique insight into the development of practices and customs of modern Western society. Likewise the brilliant portraits of the denizens of the various salons through the centuries that it covers illuminate the intelligentsia of pre-Revolution Paris and thus ultimately the minds of their many intellectual heirs, throughout Europe and the rest of the Western world, into the global culture of the centuries that followed. I’d suggest breaking down reading it into several stages, leaving plenty of time in between to digest and reflect on the chapters just read before heading onto the next. There are so many interesting themes and threads that might otherwise be missed that I could hardly suggest otherwise.
In summary, it’s a thorough and indulgent walk through one of the most vibrant and influential groups of people in European history. A wide variety of people and societies have since claimed them as part of their cultural inheritance, and as such some familiarity with these salonnières and their acquaintances and domains is key to understanding many movements and cultures that have come since.